Archive fever (a dusty digression)

I haven’t actually read Jacques Derrida’s Archive fever (Mal d’archive). But I have read Carolyn Steedman’s Dust, which mentions it (and I think this was at the back of my mind when I began to type the title for my posts about this summer’s research). For Derrida, if I have Steedman right, Archive Fever is really a kind of desire: “the desire to recover moments of inception: to find and possess all sorts of beginnings”… (Steedman, p. 5)

But Steedman takes us into other possible manifestations of Archive Fever.

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 cannot get to sleep because you lie so narrowly, in an attempt to avoid contact with anything that isn’t shielded by sheets and pillowcases. 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 fibres in the fibres of the blankets… (p. 17)

(Oh, that passage brought flooding back the memories of a place where I stayed a few years ago. The problem was not wondering about previous human occupants of the bed, though. It was the much smaller occupants that were still there that were the trouble. I still don’t know precisely what they were, but either they or something else in the bed brought me out in hives, something I’ve never experienced before or since. So, no, I did not get too much sleep.)

Or the feverish anxiety of the penultimate day in the record office:

You know you will not finish, that there will be something left unread, unnoted, untranscribed. You are not anxious about the Great Unfinished, knowledge of which is the very condition of your being there in the first place, and of the grubby trade you set out in, years ago. You know perfectly well that the infinite heaps of things they recorded, the notes and traces that these people left behind, constitute practically nothing at all… Your anxiety is more precise, and more prosaic. It’s about PT S2/1/1, which only arrived from the stacks that afternoon, which is enormous, and which you will never get through tomorrow. (p.18)

Or even the possibility of real, actual fever. It is not particularly reassuring to learn that the archive could be seriously bad for your health (anthrax-related meningitis?!). Exaggeration? Yet I already know that archives (pre-20th-century, anyway) make you sneeze. And that those old papers and parchments leave their black marks on your fingers (unless you bag yourself some gloves) and your clothes (don’t wear white in an archive. There are smudgy blackish fingerprints on my silvery laptop, too). You watch the dust rise; you mark the passing of the researcher by the little scattering of fragments of fragile paper and rotting leather and red sealing wax (those 400-year-old seals on legal documents are often simply crumbling away).

There is always someone just across from you who has a cold, which you hope fervently that you won’t catch this time. And you get the headaches that come from squinting at near-illegible handwriting… and let’s not start on the backache, often helped along by badly designed chairs. Plus, why is it that archives are either freezing cold (good for the documents, but not so much for the humans) or hot and stuffy (the budget didn’t stretch to decent airconditioning, but it did cover all those new computer terminals blowing out hot air… NLW, I’m talking to you here)?

Still, at least this summer I’m at home for my sickness. My own bed and food, no travelling, just a nice brisk walk up the hill (I hated the commuting to the PRO last year!) to settle at a desk and continue the love-hate relationship with what I do.

I say love-hate because it’s an experience of extremes: it swings between utter boredom and an overwhelming desire to pack it in NOW (several times a day, usually), to the rising excitement of the latest find – it can be something entirely unexpected, or corroboration of something you’ve already begun to suspect, or funny, or sad. But it’s never just so-so, never just another job. If it were, who’d put up with all the discomforts and the frustrations and the crappy bits?

And back to Steedman’s book, which is one that should be read by all historians. And since I have work to get back to today (but a little break from the archives; I have to get on with working on some future teaching materials and planning future courses to impress potential employers next year), I’ll just let her sign off for me.

And nothing starts in the Archive, nothing, ever at all, though things certainly end up there. You find nothing in the Archive but stories caught half way through: the middle of things; discontinuities. (p.45)

(I wish I’d remembered that quote when I was posting about disputes over livestock the other week…)

But in actual Archives, though the bundles may be mountainous, there isn’t in fact, very much there. […] The Archive is made from selected and consciously chosen documentation from the past and also from the mad fragmentations that no one intended to preserve and just ended up there. […]

The modern European public archive came into being in order to solidify and memorialise first monarchical and then state power. […] These are the origins of a prosaic place where the written and fragmentary traces of the past are put in boxes and folders, bound up, stored, catalogued …

And: the Archive is also a place of dreams. […]

To enter that place where the past lives, where ink on parchment can be made to speak, still remains the social historian’s dream, of bringing to life those who do not for the main part exist, not even between the lines of state papers and legal documents, who are not really present, not even in the records of Revolutionary bodies and fractions. (pp.68-70)

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9 Responses to Archive fever (a dusty digression)

  1. sepoy says:

    excellent post, sharon. brings both memories and premonitions.
    i am huge fan of Dust as well and that last quote has been taped to my door for a while.

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  3. rob says:

    Love this post, Sharon (especially as another member of The Dust Club — has anybody read that book and not been profoundly effected?). Have you read Steedman’s recent article on ‘Servants and their relationship to the unconscious’? It’s fantastic.

    Should you want to, you can actually read Archive Fever online via JSTOR (at least, its first publication in English in Diacritics, which is AFAIK identical to the book): here.

  4. Sharon says:

    Thanks. I’ll check out that article. In fact, it’s reminded me that I have a bunch of stuff from JBS that I want to read, which is piling up because I can’t get off-campus online access (unless I can work out how to make RAS/VPN work with my broadband connection… as usual, UWA information services helpsheets seem to be several years behind the technology) and I always forget to look at them when I’m actually in my office/the library.

  5. Plume says:

    This brings back memories of a seedy hotel near the harbor of Lorient – I must admit I skipped my morning shower in this one… I nonetheless commend the Service historique de la marine of Lorient as an extremely pleasant place for archivistic research.

  6. Thanks for the recommendations – there’s some great reflexive reading in there.

    And on the chairs- why, oh why, since by the time they designed the place there was plenty of knowledge about ergonomics, are the chairs in the British Library so uncomfortable and designed to give you backache?!

  7. Sharon says:

    I have a particular gripe about places that use (cheap) chairs with high arm rests so that you can’t pull the chair up anywhere near the desk – as if we needed any encouragement to hunch over our documents. And old-fashioned wooden chairs with slatted backs (which the printed books room at NLW has. Ow ow ow). Come to think of it, I do seem to recall that the BL chairs are supremely nasty…

  8. Cath Feely says:

    I love _Dust_ – particularly the section you quoted from. Carolyn is such a wonderful writer. Have you read _Landscape for a Good Woman_? I cannot think of a better opening for a work of history (though it’s hard to categorise such an amazing piece of work) than this from the first two pages about her mother’s death:

    ‘She died like this. I didn’t witness it. My niece told me this…

    Like this: she flung up her left arm over her head, pulled her knees up, looked out with an extraordinary surprise. She lived alone, she died alone: a working-class life, a working-class death.’

    An amusing Steedman (and dust!) anecdote that my supervisor told me: she came to stay at his house for a few days last year. The first thing his six-year-old daughter said to her as she walked through the door was ‘Oh Carolyn! You’re staying in the bedroom that Mummy never hoovers!’ Fantastic.

  9. Mike Arnzen says:

    GREAT post…I hadn’t read DUST but I now fully intend to. “Archive Fever” is awesome. To get a sampler of the best of Derrida’s idea from that book, I highly recommend the documentary, DERRIDA, by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman (Zeitgeist Films, 2002). AF is cited often in the film and you get to hear Derrida talk about it for himself (and it’s just generally a great way to get to know his work… there are scenes of him just making toast and drinking orange juice in his robe for crying out loud).

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