Wednesday, January 30, 2008

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 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 done" (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 onto:

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. (164)

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 ever! 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.

Bookmark and Share Posted by at January 30, 2008 10:40 AM to Reading Notes