Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Postmodernism and the Archives

Jacques Derrida

Members of my archives class were discussing postmodernism recently. Postmodernists believe in the subjective nature of the world and, more specifically, the subjective nature of written documents. In Understanding Archives and Manuscripts, O’Toole and Cox assert that, in the literary world, “we can be more definite about things” (4). Moreover, they claim that with the advent of writing, “knowledge can be objective rather than subjective, acquiring an existence of its own, apart from the knower” (5). Not everyone in the class agreed with these statements.

The idea of postmodernism and the archives led to discovering Thomas Bartlett’s article, "Archive Fever." It discusses the battle over Jacques Derrida’s papers between his family and the University of California at Irvine. Postmodernist or not, every archives needs a clear, specific deed of gift!

In his final interview, given to the French newspaper Le Monde in the spring of 2004, Jacques Derrida spoke of death and writing: "I leave a piece of paper behind, I go away, I die: It is impossible to escape this structure, it is the unchanging form of my life." He worried that everything he wrote would simply disappear after he was gone.

"Who is going to inherit, and how?" he wondered. "Will there even be any heirs?"

It was a strange anxiety for a man whose role as a pioneer of literary theory brought him international fame. Best known as the father of deconstruction, a playfully aggressive method of analyzing texts, Derrida was also keenly interested in what people leave behind, and how it is stored and remembered. He even devoted one of his many books — Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, published in 1996 — to the subject.

And the philosopher himself left behind a lot. Along with his intellectual legacy, a voluminous paper trail of Derrida's thought remains. Most of those papers — 116 boxes and 10 oversized folders taking up 47.8 linear feet — are housed at the University of California at Irvine. Derrida, who held a professorship at Irvine, had, more than a decade before his death in 2004, chosen the university's library as the final resting place for his manuscripts. But there are more papers that remain in the office and attic of his house outside Paris, including his later writings, letters to colleagues, books from his personal library, and so on.

Last fall the university sued Derrida's widow and his children after they refused to turn over the remainder of his papers. It was a startling move, considering the almost casual way in which the deal was struck: Neither Derrida's initial gift of his papers to Irvine, nor an amended version of it, was witnessed by a lawyer or notary public. The dispute between Derrida's heirs and the university had gone on in secret for more than two years. The lawsuit brought it into the open and, at the same time, infuriated scholars who were close to him.

It was a decision that may have ended up doing more damage to the university than did the loss of Derrida's remaining papers. While decades of his thought have been exhaustively documented, what exactly he intended to give to the university remains unclear. That has left the heirs he longed for to squabble over larger questions about the nature of archives — and the slipperiness of language — that Derrida himself might have pondered.

Continue reading "Archive Fever"

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