Dreaming History: Archive (2)

We have all faced the difficulty of remembering our earliest childhood years. Freud called it “infantile amnesia… that failure of memory… that turns everyone’s childhood into something like a prehistoric epoch.”[1] In three earlier posts titled Childhood Amnesia, Storytelling, and the Lifelong Game of Memory, I looked at Freud’s initial explanation of this phenomenon and how it has since been reworked by cognitive psychologists.[2] But what, if anything, does this problem have to do with the study of history? More specifically, how has it helped to make the archive, that key ‘location’ for historians, something seductive to both historians and non-historians alike? Or how, more loosely put, does it turn us all into historians?

We are all en mal d’archive: in need of archives … [we] burn with a passion never to cease searching for the archive right where it slips away … [we] 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 of the most archaic place of absolute beginning.[3]

If it is true that Derrida’s three-hour lecture, once published, brought renewed theorizing about the meanings and usages of the archive, it is equally true that, as Carolyn Steedman put succinctly, “Many English-speaking readers — this one too — have assumed that Archive Fever has something to do with archives (rather than with psycho-analysis, or memory, or finding things.”[4]

Steedman’s point is that Archive Fever provides an analysis of the archive not so much as place or collection of documents and artifacts, but as psychoanalytic concept and metaphor for our human longing for lost pasts and origins. If we have public places called archives, they are a product of this longing in its social and collective forms. But for each of us in our unsung journey from birth to death, this longing is also personal. And it can set in any time after we achieve the cognitive capacity to encode memories. By adulthood, in many of us, its evidence may be seen in our photo albums, scrapbooks, collections of nostalgic ephemera from the period in which we were children, family heirlooms, Ancestry.com. These are the manifest paraphernalia of our desire to create a personal archive, recover the past, go back, relive the beginning even though psychoanalysis has told us, all too clearly, that this is a lost object that cannot be found.

Derrida invokes our futile desire, drawing on the Freudian repetition compulsion — the desire to repeat. It was Freud’s clinical observation that his patients exhibited a compulsion to act out/re-enact/repeat the very things that caused them suffering: early traumas, conflicts, painful childhood experiences. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Freud set out to theorize this principle of repetition not only as an obstacle to therapeutic ‘working through’ (whereby the patient remembers and gains insight, rather than re-enacts the past) but as a general human tendency. Moreover (and as Derrida reminds us), Freud proposes that the compulsion to repeat should be understood in conjunction with the death drive. This is Freud (by his own admission) writing in his most speculative mode (and in the shadow of his daughter’s death).[5] In Part IV, he writes:

What follows is speculation, often far-fetched speculation, which the reader will consider or dismiss according to his individual predilection. It is further an attempt to follow out an idea consistently, out of curiosity to see where it will lead.

Indeed, most discussions of Beyond the Pleasure Principle note that its stark proposals concerning repetition and the death drive are difficult to disentangle from events in the author’s personal life and his grief at the loss of Sophie. Freud appears to have anticipated this conundrum: “The beyond is finally finished,” he wrote to Max Eitingon in July 1920. “You will certify that it was half-finished when Sophie was alive and flourishing.” Key passages concerning repetition and the death drive occur in Part V of the text, wherein Freud asks us to view the human compulsion to repeat as belonging to “organic life in general.”[6] This is a difficult move but one that allows him to situate the compulsion “upon the track of a universal attribute of instincts:”

It seems, then, that an instinct is an urge inherent in organic life to restore an earlier state of things which the living entity has been obliged to abandon under the pressure of external disturbing forces… This view of instincts strikes us as strange because we have become used to see in them a factor impelling towards change and development, whereas we are now asked to recognize in them the precise contrary — an expression of the conservative nature of living substance.

Anticipating the objection that there are instincts that push us forward rather than backward, Freud asks the reader to pursue, with him, “the hypothesis that all instincts tend towards the restoration of an earlier state of things.” His argument here is that this pushing forward is deceptive. The goal of the instincts is “to reach an ancient goal by paths alike old and new:”

Moreover is it possible to specify this final goal of all organic striving… it must be an old state of things, an initial state from which the living entity has at one time or other departed and to which it is striving to return by the circuitous paths along which its development leads. If we are to take as truth that knows no exception that everything dies for internal reasons — becomes inorganic once again — then we shall be compelled to say that ‘the aim of all life is death’ and, looking backwards, that ‘inanimate things existed before living ones’.

Again, for those who would wish immediately to raise the objection of our human instincts for self-preservation, Freud has an answer:

They are the component instincts whose function it is to assure that the organism shall follow its own path to death, and to ward off any possible ways of returning to inorganic existence other than those which are immanent in the organism itself. We have no longer to reckon with the organism’s puzzling determination to maintain its own existence in the face of every obstacle. What we are left with is the fact that the organism wishes to die only in its own fashion.

So, Freud is giving name to our desire for an “old state of things,” and our “striving to return” to that “initial state” from which we “departed”. Where Freud takes these insights in his seminal Part VI is subject for another day.[7] The point here is that Derrida has cast ‘archive fever’ as an outcome of our (conservative) desire to repeat and recover our lost beginnings, our longing for the original state from which we departed. In other words, Derrida takes from Freud the argument that the archive belongs to our movement towards death. Moreover, Derrida will assert, “The archive is hypomnesic” (memory-impaired). The archive, in this regard, is like human memory itself: simultaneously powerful and unreliable. Here, we may tentatively anticipate a return to the land of the plural: archives as place, collections of historical evidence in which we seek to shore up our human memory and understanding of the past:

And let us note in passing a decisive paradox to which we will not have time to return, but which undoubtedly conditions the whole of these remarks: if there is no archive without consignation in an external place which assures the possibility of memorization, of repetition, of reproduction, or of reimpression, then we must also remember that repetition itself, the logic of repetition, indeed the repetition compulsion, remains, according to Freud, indissociable from the death drive. And thus from destruction.[8]

If the archive is not safe from destruction (including its own acts of destruction), then the problem of inaccuracy and forgetfulness is written into it from the start. “The archive,” states Derrida, “always works, and a priori, against itself. The death drive tends thus to destroy the hypomnesic archive, except if it can be disguised, made up, painted, printed, represented as the idol of its truth in painting.”[9]

This perhaps is the place to stop for now. For in yet another movement of repetition, we have arrived back at the gates of archive-as-place, which for all its flaws, failings, and exposure to destruction and forgetfulness, we need. We need it as humans, we the children who are not born historians, but become historians.

(next up: the politics of the archive)

[1] Sigmund Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, 1905).

[2] Childhood amnesia is now seen as a cognitive phenomenon to do with child brain development, specifically the brain’s capacity to encode memories. It emerges around the age of seven. Up to then, children are remarkably good at remembering earlier events. (See my earlier posts on this topic).

[3] Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, University of Chicago Press, 1996. Archive Fever began as a three-hour lecture given on 5 June 1994 in London during a conference entitled Memory: The Question of Archives. The conference was held under the auspices of the Societe Internationale d’Histoire de la Psychiatrie et de la Psychanalyse, of the Freud Museum, and of the Courtauld Institute ofArt. The initial title of Derrida’s lecture was “The Concept of the Archive: A Freudian Impression.” The French title is “Mal d’ archive: Une impression freudienne. “

[4] Steedman goes on to note that Derrida’s commentators have said little about archives as “record offices, libraries and repositories” and “the everyday disappointments that historians know they will find there.” This is a point taken up by some professional archivists in a justifiable appeal for greater dialogue between archivists and Humanities scholars. See, for example, Michell Caswell, “’The Archive’ is Not an Archives: Acknowledging the Intellectual Contributions of Archival Studies,” Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture, 16:1 (2016).

[5] “This afternoon we received the news that our sweet Sophie in Hamburg had been snatched away by influenza, snatched away in the midst of glowing health, from a full and active life as a competent mother and loving wife, all in four or five days, as though she had never existed.” (letter to Pastor Oscar Pfister, January 1920). Freud’s beloved fifth daughter died during the Spanish Flu pandemic. Beyond the Pleasure Principle and The UnCanny, both written during this period, are texts clearly haunted by her death.

[6] All the passages quoted in this essay are taken from Part V of Beyond the Pleasure Principle.

[7] “Freud’s great speculative breakthrough, in which he delineates his new dual instinct (drive) theory centred on Eros and the death instinct, appears in part VI of the text.” See the Freud Museum’s helpful Beyond the Pleasure Principle — a virtual reading experience.

[8] Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever, (1995).

[9] Archive Fever. (For Derrida’s detailed analysis of Beyond the Pleasure Principle, see also Derrida, The Postcard: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond (1980).




A blog by Amy Kenyon, historian/writer/photographer. For further publications (books/essays/short stories), see https://amykenyon.net/

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A blog by Amy Kenyon, historian/writer/photographer. For further publications (books/essays/short stories), see https://amykenyon.net/

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