Derrida starts the essay by attempting to create a base understanding for the meaning of the archive and to help us understand the implications changing technology have on the archive. He spends the beginning of his essay discussing the origins of the word archive, and the historical meanings of the term. He writes that Arkhe “names at once the commencement and the commandment” (1). He goes on to explain how this dual definition means that the origin for the word archive encompasses two distinct principals at once. It signifies the “there” where things start and the “there” where things are formally indoctrinated. This means that archive can either represent the materials created from the moment they come into existence or the place in its entirety in which “archived” materials are stored. He goes on to say that an archive refers to “the originary, the first, the principal, the primitive” (2) but in order to have esteem and worth these materials must be protected by guardians in a particularly dwelling. Once in that place, and regardless of their true merit or discursiveness, and “by virtue of a privileged topology” that accompanies their being classified in the archives, they gain value.
The legitimacy of this system of privileged topology is touched upon by Freud in a satirical and thought provoking assertion in Civilization and Its Discontents. Freud writes that what he is writing is useless, devoid of merit, and self-evident. Freud here raises the question of how valuable is all that we archive, and why do we archive all that we do? Derrida expands upon this idea by bringing up our tendency to document and preserve everything.
These historically based discussions of the word archive directly relate to how we understand the meaning of the modern term archive today. Archives have come to represent both the materials—letters, books, notes—that have been collected and the places in which they are stored. Some of these materials carry great importance and others of do not. These materials are protected by various people, be those people organizations or individuals. While the careful protection of archives is important, it is also unfortunate in that these guardians control the archives and the information they contain. To destroy, alter, or censor these materials has been routine yet controversial practice for centuries. We relate to archives with a certain amount of reverence. We are desperate to preserve them, quick to believe their contents, and slow to question their relevance. In accordance with the death drive that Freud hypothesized occupies all humans, we are desperate to archive written materials almost immediately after creating them. Archives are seen as important for their ability to not only tell us about the past but indicate the futures of particular fields of study.
The archive has been changed greatly by technology. With the invention of email and other digital means of recordation many of Freud’s theories for the future of psychoanalysis and the capabilities of memory have begun to lose legitimacy. Derrida discusses how email would have completely changed the archives of the past (had it existed) merely for the difference in response brought on by a letter which takes several days to arrive versus an email that takes several seconds. Technologies of today will not allow for the type of censorship and withholding of knowledge seen with the Freud Archives.
In today’s world of transparency and access to information the public feels the right and in fact demands to know everything, however is this truly in the best interests of the public? Also, with so much information in the public digital archive how can we distinguish between what is valuable and worthy of archiving?