3. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (1995)

Jacques Derrida (1995)”Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression”

Jacques Derrida (1995) – Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression







(The Tower of Babel
by Abel Grimmer, 1595 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

What is “Archive Fever”, what is the archival impulse and why does Jacques Derrida make this connection with Freudian analysis? This particular work is not suggested reading in the Module Handbook but I felt I had to read it because it is mentioned so often by other writers on photography and the archive. In these summary notes I will concentrate upon concepts that made particular sense to me, given that I will be writing later about my personal archive of letters, documents and photographs and the memories they hold for me – objects and memories that have contributed to my own sense of self.

Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (1995)  is the title given to  a published lecture (translated from the French) given by Jacques Derrida at a weekend Conference Memory – The Question of Archive  in June 1994. The Conference emerged from the Freud Museum’s fund-raising campaign and was held at Somerset House, London.










(Mike Quinn [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Derrida delivered his  lecture (entitled the Concept of the Archive: A Freudian Impression) on the Saturday afternoon in what was described as ‘a truly memorable tour de force’  according to the Conference Report , engaging his audience ‘in a scintillating play of reflections around the idea of a historical record’ for three and a half hours. To me, as reader, this paper was convoluted, complex and difficult to follow.  I have recently reminded myself, though, that it probably made much more sense to his audience who were likely to be well-acquainted with both Derrida’s ideas and previous works alongside those of Sigmund Freud.

The essay is mainly concerned with the notion of the archive in Freud’s works but also touches upon electronic media; the role of inscription technology in the psyche and in the archives; Freud’s ‘magic tablet’; circumcision as metaphor and inscription and also whether psychoanalysis is a Jewish science.

Derrida begins by looking at the term ‘archive’ – ‘arkhe’, commencement of a thing, primacy in time, and the Greek ‘arkheion’ residence of the magistrate and the place where official documents were filed. “The archons are first of all the documents’ guardians”(1995: 9) who ensure their security and have the power to interpret the archives. It is in this ‘house arrest’ that archive takes place (I take this as the ‘act’ of archiving) and the ‘dwelling’ marks this passage from the private to the public although not from the secret (private) to the non-secret (public).  Derrida comments that this also happens as Freud’s last house becomes a museum, passing from one institution to another (1995:10). He refers to at least three these that have a common trait concerning ‘the impression left by the Freudian signature on its own archive on the concept of the archive and of archivization, that is to say also, inversely and as an indirect consequence, on historiography.’ At a basic level I take this to mean that whatever is in the archive comprises evidential memory pre-shaped by Freud and his family’s choices as to what should be destroyed and what should be retained to maintain his reputation and keep his teachings alive, plus what should be seen/unseen. These choices would, then, be further shaped by those who have maintained and will maintain and expand  the archive in the future. This site was helpful in reminding me of this  .

If I relate this to my own ‘archive’ then I will be interpreting material that my family members and I chose to keep. For example, my father’s letters to me, from Egypt, were kept and I took them with me when I married and left home.  After my parents’ deaths I found no letters that either of them had written to each other during that period of time. I added photographs and letters to my own archive and these included material that my mother had retained from her mother’s personal effects. I have continued this work of gathering together by searching for information about the immediate post-war years both in this country and in Egypt. In 2005 I visited Egypt, added further impressions of the country, felt an empathic connection with my father, and took my own photographs.

Continuing along similar lines of thought Derrida connects the archive (Freud’s) with the death drive ‘which is anarchivic (resists and subverts the archive) , or archiviolithic and threatens every archival desire – le mal d’archive, archive fever  (1995:14). The archive will never be either memory or anamnesis (having the ability to recall past events)  as spontaneous, alive and internal experience . It is hypnomesic – impairs memory (1995:12) .  the technical structure of the archive also determines the structure of the archivable content and the archivization produces as much as it records the event. Derrida uses the example of e-mail – stating that psychoanalysis would not have been what it was if such had existed because electronic mail is moving towards transforming public and private space and the limit between the private, the secret (private or public) and the public of the phenomenal (1995:17).  He then moves on to thinking more about the structure, and uses the notion of the printer to link the theory of psychoanalysis (including memory) with a theory of the archive. This links back with Freud’s concept of a ‘mystic pad’.  [i]

With the thought of the graphic mark, repetition and printing, Derrida links ‘inscription’  with circumcision, which leaves the trace of the incision directly on the skins – ‘more than one skin at more than one age’ (1995:19) the layers of skin as sedimented archives. In appearance this is a private inscription. “To which archive does it belong – that of Sigmund Freud? That of the psychoanalytic institution or science? Where does one draw the limit”   (1995:19). Derrida proposes another example. On the day of his 35th Birthday Freud was handed the Bible he had studied in his youth which his father, Yakob Freud, restored to , with a new leather, binding as a gift.  This appeared with a new translation in a book on Freud by the Jeweish Historian Professor Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi  (1932-2009)expected to give his own lecture later) and Derrida states that the book left a strong impression on him that accompanied the preparation of his lecture.  Derrida was interested in Yerushalmi’s attempts to analyse Freud’s practice alongside Freud’s relationship to his Jewish heritage and the question as to whether genetically or structurally psychoanalysis is really a Jewish science, given that Freud refuted the influence of his heritage. (1965:28).

Derrida examines three meanings which layer with each other in the word and phrase ‘impression’ and ‘Freudian impression’ and their relationship to ‘memory’ “that objectivizable storage called the archive” (1995:22)

  • Scriptural or typographic – There has to be a substrate for the mark/impression to be left there. Can one imagine an archive without a foundation?
  • Neither Freud nor ourselves (those present at the lecture) have managed to form a concept of ‘archive’. We only have a series of impressions. Whilst Freudian psychoanalysis proposes a theory of the archive the concept of the archive must inevitably carry within itself an ‘unknowable’ weight.
  • The third meaning concerns the impression left by Sigmund Freud – impressions made upon him by birth; circumcision; faith; his culture and his culture’s history; interactions with others; the impression that he has made upon others; the history of history

He believes that whilst the notion of the archive points towards the past it should also question the coming of the future. If we imagine ‘a project of general archivology’ it would have to either include psychoanalysis or place itself under the critical authority of psychoanalysis.

My understanding of this is that the ‘archive’ cannot be objective in its gathering of evidence. Its very structure is created by those who have been moulded through their own ‘culture’, history and biology. That culture includes what Freud termed trans-generational memory or archive – the memory of cultural experiences (cf Simon Schama (2004)  Landscape and Memory).  An archive produces as well as records – it creates collections of material, choices are made as to what should be retained/maintained/ disposed of. I can apply this to my own personal archive as well as an institutional one. I can, of course, also apply this to my own memory of events  that structure within my brain that stores impressions, thoughts, feelings, perceptions of events, so this must be taken into account.

I have found this both a fascinating and frustrating period of reading, attempting to follow Derrida’s convoluted thought processes whilst somehow absorbing ideas that are useful to me in carrying forward this question of archives. Somewhat late in the day I also discovered this blog post by Walker Sampson which particularly looks at the essay from the point of view of a practicing records manager of archivist.


[i]  At this point I felt compelled to discover more about Freud’s concept.  Musing on memory preservation Freud, thought of writing in a note book –but the sheet would soon be filled plus this ‘permanent’ trace might  lose value if the note becomes no longer interesting enough to be retained in ‘memory’ . An alternative would be chalk on slate – notes could be erased but the writing surface retained, but then there could not be a permanent trace. Freud then brings to mind a product of the time called a “Mystic Writing Pad” or Printator (still sold today as a children’s toy )

The writing on it vanishes and does not reappear and yet a trace is left on the bottom of the three layers –  If we imagine one hand writing upon the surface of the Mystic Writing-Pad while another periodically raises its covering sheet from the wax slab, we shall have a concrete representation of the way in which I tried to picture the functioning of the perceptual apparatus of our mind. (S. Freud, 1925:212)


Freud, S (1925) A Note upon the “Mystic Writing Pad” (1925) pp in  Freud, S (1963), General Psychological Theory, Chapter XIII, Macmillan Publishing Company, pp 207-212

Accessed on 6th October 2016