We’ve Got the Archive Fever… Achoo!

Awww! via Aureusbay on Flickr:

My plan was to try to bounce between three great conferences happening in the city this weekend: the Media Histories: Epistemology, Materiality, Temporality conference at Columbia, the Memory conference at The New School, and the Mapping New Media symposium at the Bard Graduate Center. Alas, I missed the mapping symposium (thanks to the wonderful Tanya Toft for generously sharing her notes with me!), which left me to spend two days thinking about universal libraries, archives, drawings, paperwork, medium-specificity, seriality, temporality, memory, preservation, epistemology, materiality, and myriad related “ities.” What a luxury! It’s rare that I can spend a whole day — let alone two — thinking about the ideas that most captivate me. Still, I must admit: all that archive fever is enough to give one an archive headache! (groan)

But wait: it’s actually such references to “archive fever” that trigger a slight uneasiness. Over the past couple years I’ve noticed that a lot of people are appropriating Derrida’s phrase to refer to a supposed infatuation with archiving — a passion for assembling and sorting and storing; a compulsion to do things like organize houseplants in retired card catalogues (which I’d totally do, by the way, if I had a card catalogue sitting around); a tendency to refer to our hard drives and junk drawers as “archives.”  “We’re cuckoo for collecting!”

But that’s not what “archive fever” is about, really.


Derrida’s lecture is titled Mal d’archive, which, Carolyn Steedman argues, would be much more appropriately translated as trouble…, misfortune…, pain…, hurt…, sickness…, wrong…, sin…, badness…, or evil of the archive, rather than the “faintly comic ‘fever’ of the English translation.”[1] But even if that off-the-mark title translation escapes us, Derrida’s description of the mal d’archive in the book’s Exergue should clue us in to the fact that this mal isn’t some cutesy fad: it’s an “irrepressible desire to return to the origin” — one linked as much to the pleasure principle [2] as it is to the death drive.

Not so cute. I’m not cuckoo for that.


[1] Carolyn Steedman, “Something She Called a Fever: Michelet, Derrida, and Dust” The American Historical Review 106:4 (October 2001): 1159-1180.

[2] Side note: principle/principal are homophones that lend themselves to funny mix-ups. Consider, for instance, what a Pleasure Principal would be. I bet that’d be a popular job 🙂

3 replies on “We’ve Got the Archive Fever… Achoo!”

I think Derrida leaves room for the kinds of things people think they’re talking about when they reference fever, in his description of ‘archive desire’ – which is where this infatuated sort of archiving comes into play. Desire:fever::creation:destruction in Derrida’s schema, I’m pretty sure?

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