Dying to Get Archived

By Samantha Dacunto

Humans, though extraordinary, are curious creatures. Our behavior is a constant interest of study. Jacques Derrida is one of many who have attempted to make sense of the curious behavior humans engage in. Derrida’s Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression attempts to understand why humans archive. With the help of Freudian ideology, Derrida connects the need to archive to the three drives described by Freud; death, aggression and destruction. All three are very interesting but the death drive stands out because on all levels of life, death exists. It is intriguing that humans approach death very differently, yet we all archive it in some way or another. Death is the reason we archive, whether it is the fear of it, the anticipation of it or the aftermath of death. Culturally and religiously we approach death in various ways. What we archive is the choice of the individual and their cultural surroundings. Differences are seen in burial rituals, mourning rituals and even how the dead are represented later among the living. Do these personal archives help keep the dead as real as they were when they were alive or do they create this vague memory of a person we wanted to exist?

The way Derrida wants the reader to understand the death drive in relation to archives is that we archive because we fear being forgotten and archiving is our way of carrying over our memory after death. Memory is flawed, therefore when creating an archive we are destroying (destruction-drive) the truth of the event. This suggests that the deceased  person is remembered through their material belongings and since we choose what to keep and what to discard we have the power of manipulating the actual existence of that person which is essentially creating a new person all together. Our obsession with immortality is interesting but our ritual surrounding it is so bizarre that it recreates a new life rather than remembering one that already existed.

What stays and what goes is a question constantly being brought up in archival institutions but they usually have guidelines aiding archivists on how to sort through records. But what about the individual, how do they determine what stays and what goes, why not keep everything? Culturally we follow the norms of death rituals that pertain to our immediate social group but on a individual level we make deeper, more emotional choices in deciding what stays and what goes after the death of person..

David S. Kirk and Abigail Sellen attempt to make clear the behavior of individuals when faced with death in their study On Human Remains: Values and Practice in the Home Archiving of Cherished Objects. They determined that people collect and archive objects that had belonged to the deceased, were given by the deceased or are a remembrance of the deceased in order to support memories of the deceased. People chose to keep items such as jewelery, photos, clothing, furniture, paintings and home videos. Derrida would argue that memory despite any support material or not, given to it is flawed, the only truth is the experience itself. These items that we chose to keep are they supporting a memory or are the selected items strategically replacing the reality of the event and creating a new imagined one?

Would Derrida’s argument still hold true today? Video captures the event (although from a single perspective) it records the event in real time. Home video, for example can support a memory by providing the basic who, what, when, where, and why. What is witnessed in the home video can very easily be as real as the event itself though it is filmed from a single perspective it does capture some aspects of the cameraman’s experience. This footage for the individual is certainly supporting the memory instead of warping it, especially if the individual archiving the piece was in control of the camera during the time the video was shot. This type of exposure to the individual experience would be useful to researchers researching topics that involve the understanding of individuals in a family because it gives an opportunity to take a glimpse into the experiences of others.

On a broader level, do archives choose to keep selected records because they help support the factual events or do the selected records aid in creating a newly understood perspective on or of the event? Death of a person and the death of an event is essentially the same. Just as a person can warp their memory of a person by carefully selecting what to remember and what items to cherish, the archive can change the reality and facts of an event by selecting and providing a carefully selected assortment of records. The archivists may not even be aware of their tottering with reality but it is inevitable because humans attach emotions to events and experience. An archive dedicated to Presidential Pets is subject to the same distortion as an archive about the Holocaust. People associate emotions both negative and positive to events and experiences that they have personally experienced, ones that they have read about and ones they have imagined. These emotions sway their opinions on the matter allowing them to subconsciously make biased judgments on what items get to remain in the archive and what items get tossed.

Selecting items to help support a memory is impossible because what the items are actually supporting is the emotions attached to the memory. Regardless of whether the item accurately conveys an emotion attached to the event the emotion itself produces an inaccurate recall of the reality.

Derrida, Jacques and Eric Prenowitz (1995). “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression”

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Samantha Dacunto

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