Archive Fever

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Read 01/04/2016-03/04/2016

Rating: 3 stars

This book has been on my shelf for almost a decade. People who think about what archives are and what archiving is refer to it a lot. I was at a conference recently about the role of research in museums, and I found myself thinking about my own attitude to research, and to reflection. I came to the conclusion that I am a do-er rather than a thinker. I would rather do the practical job of being an archivist, gaining satisfaction from collecting archives and describing them, then making them accessible to the people who do the thinking. I’m not one for contemplating my own navel, which is how thinking about archives feels to me. That’s why I’ve never picked it up before now.

I picked it up now because I nominated it for the March Madness challenge on The Reader’s Room. So I had to read it!

Much of Derrida‘s book is focused on the relationship between psychoanalysis and the concept of Jewishness, but in exploring the development of psychoanalysis and the still emerging archival evidence that sheds light on how Freud worked and with whom he corresponded, Derrida also explores the nature of archives – what they are, and what they could become.

I’ve worked in archives, including my training, since 1993. I’m usually curious about words, but I’ve never bothered finding out what the origin of my profession’s name is. I’ve always accepted it as a name. Fortunately, Derrida is here to help me find out.

He begins with a discussion of Arkhē – a Greek word meaning government, which Derrida suggests embodies the concept of both commencement and command. Archives, he suggests, both commence an activity and command it. They are both the law of government itself and a record of the law’s outcomes.

He moves on to Arkheion – the domicile of the superior magistrate in Greek society, the place where archives are stored.

That superior magistrate is the Archon, whose role it was to guard the official documents stored at their house. This makes sense of what the register of archive repositories used to be called on The National Archives’ website. Another term I never questioned but simply accepted.

And then we have the Latin term archivum, which derives from the Greek, and results in the French term archive (ar-sheeve), from which my profession derives its name. A lot of the terminology we use in archives comes from legal French. Perhaps the concept of archiving was introduced to Britain and codified by the Normans. I don’t know. I should probably look it up.

Anyway, within two pages I learned something about my profession that I haven’t known for 23 years.

The rest of the introduction is familiar. It describes archives as the record and repository of democracy, the holder of facts, the means by which society keeps tabs on authority and remembers past activity. These are the fundamental things that made me want to be an archivist, and particularly one working, as I did until 2003, in local authority archives. Now I work in museum archives, and the collections I care for are concerned less with democracy and more with communal memory.

So far, so interesting for me. But this extended essay is a transcript of a lecture given by Derrida at an international colloquium at the Freud Museum and doesn’t just consider the nature of archives, but also the nature of memory and the place of both in Freudian theory. I don’t know any Freudian theory, but I am interested in the nature of memory and what constitutes truth and hard evidence. I recently had cause to think about this when I read Julian Barnes’s novel The Noise of Time.

Because of my lack of knowledge of Freud’s writings I might have got this wrong, but I think Freud had a notion of the person acting as an archive for both individual and inherited/community memory, in that your brain cells are a repository for your memories and for the folklore of your culture. There is discussion of Moses and the inscription of Judaic law onto the tablets, which were stored in the Ark of the Covenant (the first archive?), and the consequent individual and collective retention of Jewish memory both physically through the mark of circumcision and the wearing of phylacteries and virtually in the oral traditions passed across generations. There is reference to God dedicating Israel and Israel alone to the act of remembering, and to the injunction to remember being felt as a religious imperative by an entire people only in Israel. From this Derrida spins out an idea that remembering is to ensure justice. This dovetails with my belief that archives are the root of democracy, that preserving written records ensures justice, giving society a reference point to go back to in order to secure future fairness. Why else do oppressive regimes indulge in cultural vandalism, wiping out physical representations of another culture and its communal memory? Why else do corrupt politicians seek to prevent access to the records of their corruption?

In a section called Exergue, we have Freud’s question of what is worthy of being recorded. What justifies the expense of time, materials and effort in creating a permanent record. For Freud it is the development of an original proposition, something new in psychoanalysis. I question whether this is true. Archive documents often record repetitive processes carried out multiple times. They are part of the process of existing within society, and as such they hold our collective as well as individual memories. If corporations, businesses, individuals only recorded what was new, unique, original, we would have little collective memory.

Also under consideration is the destructive drive: the decision not to record an activity or not to preserve the record. This, for an archivist, is just one of those things. When I trained, we were instructed on Jenkinsonian principles. The archivist preserves what happens to survive, we neither seek to influence that survival nor react to it with rejection. We stand outside history, not putting our personal imprint on it. That only works for records born of statute, though. There is a limit to storage space, so of course we reject, and of course we consider what adds something new or useful or relevant to the priorities of the archive repository. And now we also consider, out of that created today, what might be of interest to citizens of the future.

The printing press is considered as a machine for archiving, in as much as it mechanically records as written word the thoughts a person might have, consigning them to perpetuity. Later in the book, other forms of recording and proliferating thought are considered. Freud imagined a Mystic Pad, a psychic tool to make external the memories we carry inside. Derrida considers the advances made in technology and asks whether we now have Freud’s imaginary machines. Computers in all their guises record our thoughts so easily that we now have an excess of potential archives. How do we manage the electronic documentation of human existence? When Derrida gave his lecture 22 years ago, smart phones, tablet computers and social media didn’t exist. The new technology that marked a transition for him was email. Email made communication of ideas more instant than writing letters, and changed the way thoughts on a subject evolved. My interpretation of what Derrida means is this – a letter might take days to reach a recipient. The effort of taking paper and pen, finding time to sit and write, unable to edit without taking fresh paper so as to send clean copy in the letter, all contribute to Freud’s question of whether recording the thought was worthwhile. It built in time for reflection. Email began the move towards instant communication, instant editing, removing much of the time for reflection from the process of communicating thought. For an archivist, email also changed the process in that we have a new format of documentation to deal with, and we have lost those first drafts of communication that occasionally survive among the written papers of an individual, corporation or institution. We have lost some of the evidence of thought processes.

22 years on from Derrida’s lecture, people are committing their random thoughts every second to electronic documents. I’m doing it right now. Going back to Freud’s question of worthiness, are all of these expressions worthy of preservation and retention? Are they memories, or are they transient thoughts that once might only have been spoken and then disappeared? And thinking about Jenkinson and his will to preserve without intervention, are archivists duty bound to gather them together and guard them so that people down the centuries will know what we ate on a daily basis, what we thought about in minute detail? Must we drown future historians in an ocean of cyber babble?

Derrida also raises the issue of new technologies producing output as much as they archive it, in the sense that their very existence compels us to feed them, producing more and more that then becomes record. He gives the example of modern news media which, with its 24 hour rolling output, generates stories in order to justify its existence.

In the section called Preamble, Derrida is interesting on the openness of the term archive. For me, as an archivist, a professional trained in the practice of preserving, documenting, interpreting and making accessible the written record of society, there is a clear, technical definition of the word archive: it is the place or store in which public records or other historical documents are preserved, and it is the historical material itself. For the rest of the world, there are multiple broader meanings attached to the word. Derrida insists that ‘archive’ is only a notion, it is not a concept. As a term, for him it lacks rigour and expresses the possibility of a concept while remaining vague in and of itself. I both agree and disagree with him. It’s something that frustrates me. I think it is a concept, in relation to the work I carry out, but it isn’t one that most people understand. The day after the conference, I was out on a hen party at which there were people I had never met before. I always dread trying to explain what I do to people, because if a person doesn’t have prior knowledge it usually means they’re not interested and me trying to explain it in the face of their incomprehension leaves me feeling like the most boring person on the planet. During the hen party I was asked what I did for a living, and I ploughed on, trying to find things to say that might excite attention, but was met with the usual blank expressions. I am conscious of this having an effect on how I talk about my work to people outside my professional sphere. My default position has become one of not expecting people to be interested, so perhaps this comes across in how I talk about it. The self-fulfilling prophecy of “You’re not going to be interested, so I won’t talk as though you might be interested, and therefore you won’t be interested.”

In terms of wider notions of the term archive, computer technology with its ubiquity has also stolen a march on my profession. We have been too hidden in our work and lost control of the term to the concept of an archive being a complete record of the data in part or all of a computer system, stored on an infrequently used medium, and the action of transferring less frequently used data to another medium. There are other interpretations, too, that I have encountered among lecturers on 3D design courses (art, fashion, sculpture, ceramics, film, photography, etc) where an archive is more than written evidence, it also includes the physical 3D output of an artist. It makes for fun misunderstandings when a lecturer asks to use the archive, meaning our stored object collection, and is put through to my department.

In the section called Foreword, Derrida also says something about this lack of concept that appeals to me. He says that the openness of the term means we don’t operate within a closed, sealed heritage. We don’t look solely to the past. Archives are not just memory, they are reminder. They point to the present and to the future as well as the past. The term is fluid because it needs to adapt to changes in the way humanity consigns its thoughts. So while I feel that my job is a concept that defines what I do, the material that I work with is not a concept and I have to be flexible and adaptable in preserving that material.

The rest of the Foreword focuses on an imagined conversation by the historian of Jewish culture and society, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, where he challenges the ghost of Freud to admit that psychoanalysis is a Jewish science. Derrida has various issues with Yerushalmi’s questioning of an imagined dead Freud and the authenticity of his claim that Freud would be revealing this secret to him first. Here, the discovery of another archive, which reveals that Freud did admit to sometimes thinking psychoanalysis was predominantly Jewish in nature to other psychologists, is used to debunk Yerushalmi’s claim. The incompleteness of the archival record and the potential for more archival material to come to light adds to Derrida’s belief that archives lack what is needed to become a concept.

The thing that most interested me about this section was the notion of having a one-sided conversation with someone who couldn’t answer back. Effectively, you are imposing your own views onto the other person, ascribing agreement, without fear of contradiction. My experience as the daughter of someone with dementia is that, if you really want to have a conversation about something, a one-sided conversation with someone who might or might not understand what you’re saying and then might or might not be able to articulate their response in a way you can understand is not satisfying. It makes a nonsense of conversation. Another thing that struck me in thinking about this was the fact that I have a lot of people in my life who hold fixed ideas of their own, and conversation with them can also be a dissatisfying experience. For me, conversation aids memory. The exchange of views, the discussion, contributes to the conversation becoming more meaningful. A general lack of meaningful conversation in my life is one of the many reasons I keep blogs about things that interest me, in the hope that someone else will want to join a conversation about it. At the conference I recently attended, I had a conversation with someone about changes we were implementing at our respective institutions, and it was inspiring and engaging. Encounters like that help me to believe that the lack of conversation generally isn’t all down to me, and they remind me that I’m not just another drone in the heritage hive, that I do have interesting things to say.

The section called Theses explored the idea of talking to ghosts as a means of satisfying nostalgia, the painful desire to return to the origin and source of a memory. This section lost me a little. Derrida looks at Freud’s treatment of haunting and hallucination as a possible expression of insanity. I didn’t really understand what this had to do with what had gone before. Derrida tries to link Freud accepting that people see ghosts, or recognise people reincarnated in other people, with Freud’s concept of the archive (but I thought the archive wasn’t supposed to be a concept!), saying that Freud is divided and contradictory. I really didn’t get what he was saying there. He pulls together thoughts on the unreliability of the word archive and of the concept (so there is a concept?) archived in the word archive. It is, he says, troubling. And it’s all the fault of psychoanalysis. Okay, if you say so, Jacques! Three theses are then set out which do pull together the threads of what has gone before.

Reading the book took effort, but in a positive way. It forced me to think in a more abstract way about the meanings I attach to my profession and the documents I care for. I don’t know that it was practically useful in helping me do my job, though. For me, that Freudian question of whether the time I’ve spent reading, reflecting and recording my thoughts was worthwhile, practical me says “Probably not.” Time will tell.

And in a way, with that “Time will tell,” I’ve just reinforced Derrida’s point. But you’ll have to read the book yourself to understand why I say that.

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