Writing Feverlets*

Curious about her critique of Derrida’s Archive Fever, I picked up a
copy of Carolyn Steedman’s Dust: The Archive and Cultural History from
Bird Library, recalling it from another patron who had checked it out (v. sorry
about that). I deal briefly with AF in Chapter Three. Steedman
makes the point that AF is less about archives than about Derrida’s
concern for the slippage of origins (a theme in his other work) and the
inseparability of psychoanalysis from Freud (and also Judaism). She
writes, "The Foreword [to AF] carried the main argument, about Freud’s
Jewish-ness, and the contribution of Jewish thought to the idea of the archive,
via psycho-analysis" (7). Basically, Steedman is suspicious of Derrida’s
characterization of the fever (as a frenzied pursuit of origins which do not
properly exist). She complains that the concept of the fever is degraded in
translation from Mal d’Archive, and then she enthusiastically claims the
sickness Derrida mocks: "Archive fever, indeed? I can tell you all about
Archive Fever!" (17). Dust undertakes this "all about-ness" at fever’s pitch;
Steedman, all the while, works to correct (or tune, at the very least) Derrida’s
glancing consideration of the archive left behind in his treatment of other
concerns (psychoanalysis, Freud, and so on).

Steeedman suggests that Derrida, in questioning the concept of archivization,
was late to the game: "There was a further puzzlement (or more accurately, a
bemusement feigned to mask a kind of artisant irritation) among those who
knew the ‘archival turn’ to be well underway by 1994, with Derrida merely
(though compellingly) providing a theoretical perspective on the institution of
archives, the practices of reading and writing attendant on them, and the system
of regulation and coercion they have (sometimes) underlined" (2). Here,
identifying Derrida’s tardiness to the conversation, next Steedman pairs him
with Foucault and suggests that Derrida is merely winding down a path blazed by
Foucault in the 1960s with The Archaeology of Knowledge. This all seems
reasonable, except that Steedman downplays Derrida’s insights on digital
circulation. In twenty-first century discourse networks, an institutional (or
disciplinary) memory is differently distributed (this strand of Derrida’s
lecture in 1994 seems to me to make him early rather than late, at least in
terms of oncoming changes for archives because of digitization). As I read it,
this is the point where Steedman’s critique could be more lenient or forgiving
than it is.

Steedman has more to say about Derrida, about magistrates, and about
Michelet’s work in the archive (some of which draws on an essay from Barthes I
haven’t read). Here’s a sample of what she writes about the fever she
knows so well, even relishes:

Typically, the fever–more accurately, the precursor fever*–starts in
the early hours of the morning, in the bed of a cheap hotel, where the
historian cannot get to sleep. You can not get to sleep because you
lie so narrowly, in an attempt to avoid contact with anything that isn’t
shielded by sheets and pillowcase. The first sign, then, is an
excessive attention to the bed, an irresistible anxiety about the hundreds
who have slept there before you, leaving their dust and debris in the fibres
of the blankets, greasing the surface of the heavy, slippery counterpane.
The dust of others, and of other times, fills the room, settles on the
carpet, marks out the sticky passage from the bed to bathroom. (17)

Oye! To-do list: Reconsider the hotel booked for CCCC in April. As if the
dust in the cheap hotel isn’t enough, Steedman continues, describing the rising
acuity of the hotel’s built-in, built-up rattiness as a "screen anxiety." "What
keeps you awake…is actually the archive, and its myriad of the dead, who all
day long, have pressed their concerns upon you. You think: these people have
left me the lot…. You think: I could get to hate these people; and
then: I can never do these people justice; and finally: I shall never get it
" (17-18). Can their differences be summed up like this?: Steedman’s
work hinges on the past, the rank traces of dust (as material remnant of
people and things); Derrida has concern for a fixation on the exhaustibility of
the past the, in its obsessive pursuit, does not sufficiently heed the futurist
orientation of the archive. Probably this is too simple.

I am losing hope that this one blog entry will mend the gap between Steedman
and Derrida. I will shelve it in case I need to figure this out later
(also because Steedman is not yet in the diss or my CCCC talk, for that matter).
Before setting the entry to post, here are two more excerpts I want to hold

This is what Dust is about; this is what Dust is: what it means and what
it is. It is not about rubbish, nor about the discarded; it is not about a
surplus, left over from something else: it is not about Waste.
Indeed, Dust is the opposite thing to Waste, or at least, the opposite
principle to Waste. It is about circularity, the impossibility of
things disappearing, or going away, or being gone. Nothing can be destroyed.

Curious here is whether Derrida works according to a similar set of
principles: "It is about circularity, the impossibility of things disappearing,
or going away, or being gone." Dust: no ends; AF: no origins.

Still more: Reading in a chapter called "The Story of Dust," Steedman’s
polarization of dust and waste is repeated; this time, however, it comes with a
reference to Moretti:

Dust–the Philosophy of Dust–speaks of the opposite of waste and
dispersal; of a grand circularity, of nothing ever, ever going away. There
were complex, articulate and well-understood languages developed to express
this knowledge, a few of which I have mentioned. And I suggest that
Dust is another way of seeing what Franco Moretti described as the
nineteenth-century solution to the violent ruptures of the late eighteenth
century, a solution found in narrative. (166)

I am intrigued–even feverish (perhaps only struck with a passing feverlet)–by
these tensions: narrative and database, a past-ist and futurist orientation for
archivization, the im/permanence of material and digital substrates (nothing
going away, except when a hard drive crashes or a thumb drive takes an
accidental tumble in the clothes dryer and no data is rescued in the lint trap).
Different dusts, then, and different problems for archives, for the work of
archivization and circulation, through which traces either go on or collapse
into the brew.