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Archive Fever

The Canadian government had cut funding to Library and Archives Canada. So I quote Derrida. 

July 29, 2012

I love archives. My dissertation research involved visiting over 15 different libraries and archives across Canada and the United States (not to mention the handful of editors and translators who graciously shared their papers with me). I’m currently involved in a digital research collective (EMiC) who are equally dedicated to archival research and its importance to literary studies (in our case, Modernist Canadian literature).

I have a really deep admiration of the archival efforts that exist here in the United States, particularly when it comes to American history. Posts this summer form both Timothy Burkeand Tenured Radicalshow just how open and accessible American history is here, in terms of the archival footage. Take, for another example, the newly-discovered video footage of five soldiers standing under an atmospheric nuclear detonation, unearthed by a Russian researcher. It’s not perfect, but the country largely respects the importance of archives in historical research (ok, not everyone). 

In terms of literary history, the sheer number of American universities seems to ensure that each one has at least one interesting archive relating to local (or completely random) literature, author, or other literary figure. Our own library here houses an impressive collection of Appalachian archives as they relate to Kentucky, as well as Folk Music and Folk Arts centers. The NEH works hard (with limited funding) to preserve and digitize important pieces of humanities history and archives.

Before you knock the rose-colored glasses off my face, I am looking at the situation from my perspective as a Canadian and a Canadian researcher. The Library and Archives Canada has just had their budgets slashed, in the name of “modernization.”The blog Archives Next has a really great rundown of the devastation that these cuts will lead to, particularly at the local and provincial level.  They also point out that Library and Archives Canada is an entity that performs the role of both the Library of Congress and the National Archives here in the States. These cuts are disturbing and depressing; in the future, a dissertation like mine will not be written; those writers and archives that are currently caught “in the middle” (not open-access, not born digital) will never be archived, never saved.

I’m currently revising my dissertation (on Anne Hébert and the translation of her poetry into and publication in English), and I am adding a lot of materials (ok, theory) on archives. My dissertation was a many-headed beast (people who do translation, who do Canadian literature, who do literary history/canon formation, etc), but no one who specialized or worked with archives. Now I’m trying to bridge that gap and I came across Derrida’s two works that deal with archives: Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression and Geneses, genealogies, genres, and genius: the secrets of the archive. I was struck, while reading them, how appropriate and relevant what he wrote is in the face of the Canadian government’s decision to slash the budget for our national archives.

So, if you will indulge me, I would like to do something I never thought I would do in a blog post: quote Derrida extensively. Seriously. I can’t believe it either. The first three are from Archive Fever.

“The dwelling, this place where they dwell permanently, marks this institutional passage from the private to the public, which does not always mean from the secret to the nonsecret…Which such a status, the documents, which are not always discursive writings, are only kept and classified under the title of the archive by virtue of a privileged topology. They inhabit this uncommon place, this place of election where law and singularity intersect in priviledge.” (2-3).

“Nothing is less reliable, nothing is less clear today than the word ‘archive.’…Nothing is more troubled and more troubling. The with what is troubling here is undoubtedly what troubles and muddles our vision (as they say in French), what inhibits sight and knowledge, but also the trouble of troubled and troubling affairs (as they also say in French), the trouble of secrets, of plots, of clandestineness, of half-private, half-public conjurations, always at the unstable limit between public and private, between the family, the society, and the State, between the family and an intimacy even more private than the family, between oneself and oneself…With the irreplaceable singularity of a document to interpret, to repeat, to reproduce, but each time in its original uniqueness, an archive ought to be idiomatic, and thus at once offered and unavailable for translation, open to and shielded from technical iteration and reproduction.” (90)

I want to really think about this idea of privilege that Derrida talks about and this idea of instability between public and private. Archives are a privileged place, and in many cases only accessible to specialized researchers and those who work in their stacks. The papers and other archival traces thus become open secrets, waiting to be discovered but often remain unremarked upon. But even if it is only a handful of privileged people who do have access, there is still access. There is also added pressure to make the archives less privileged spaces, more open. But cuts will make archives either even more isolated and privileged, if they even exist at all.

But why do we even need or want archives?

“The trouble de l’archive stems from a mal d’archive. We are en mal d’archive: in need of archives. Listening to the French idiom, and in it the attributes en mal de, to be en mal d’archive can mean something else than to suffer from a sickness, from a trouble or from what the noun mal might mean. It is to burn with a passion. It is never to rest, interminably, from searching for the archive right where it slips away. It is to run after the archive, even if there’s too much of it, right where something in it anarchives itself. It is to have a compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic desire for the archive, an irrepressible desire to return to the origin, a homesickness, a nostalgia for the return to the most archaic place of absolute commencement.” (91) 

This nostalgia may at first appear quite problematic, but really, in our world that seems to be perpetually and unceasingly pushing forward, this need for archives seems more important than ever. Even if this “place of absolute commencement” remains unreachable, it nonetheless represents an important impulse to want to look back as well as forward, to interrogate the past. Limiting the access to archives limits our ability to even begin to imply a place of absolute commencement.

I want to end with this quote from Geneses, genealogies, genres, and genius. The genius Derrida is referring to is Hélene Cixous, but I like to think about his comments more generally. What other geniuses are hidden away in archives, themselves bigger and stronger than the libraries themselves, or perhaps those archives that deserve to be, but never will.

“Each of these Ulysses, every one of their brilliant {géniaux} inventors, is potentially incommensurable with any library supposed to house them, classify them, shelve them. Bigger and stronger than the libraries that act as if they have the capacity to hold them, if only virtually, they derange all the archival and indexing spaces by the disproportion of the potentially infinite memory they condense according to the processes of undecidable writing for which as yet has no complete formalization exists.” (14-15)

Archives are not unproblematic spaces. But, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t necessary and deserve our attention, our best researchers, and, more generally, our support. 


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