Sharing information: from the archive to the database

In Jacques Derrida’s Archive Fever, the notion of the archive is presented, in large part, via the case study of psychoanalysis. Firstly though, he delves into the word’s etymology. The word “archive,” rooted in Greek lexicon, means home, domicile or family—then to a more present and abstract designation—the lineage or institution. The relevance in modern terms, therefore, assigns archives to the “institutional passage from the private to the public.”

And in large part, that is how archives are generally viewed today: an information landscape of once personal importance (i.e. Freud’s correspondence with patients) to the routinely examined public arena (i.e. the academia of psychoanalysis), an accessible storage unit. Derrida calls it a museum subject to the external, where information is put in reserve only to be unearthed in the future.

The “future,” Derrida argues, is an alteration of the archive, as its existence contradicts, subverts or flouts many of the things that underpinned the initial archive, which, he writes, “takes place at the place of originary and structural breakdown of memory.” This memory or germinating idea then manifests itself in the archive through printing, recording, distributing, ciphering, displacing and condensing.

The “past,” therefore, represents the raw material from which interpretation may be cultivated—manuscripts, correspondence, publications, drafts, sketches, and the like. Derrida writes that these archival foundations are constantly moving away from us here in the present, burrowing further into the past. However, the archive persists because of our innate fear of forgetfulness, or “radical finitude.” Derrida describes the future as our attempt (or “pledge”) to compartmentalize and therefore ensure the perpetuation of those ideas vulnerable to evaporation—like one of Freud’s seemingly negligible sketches or preliminary patient diagnoses.

Derrida argues that technology (namely, postal innovations like E-mail) is transforming the passageway between the private and public sectors, a conduit printed archives formerly governed. Technology, he continues, also ushered a virtually indestructible safeguard against destruction. And with this sort of conservation that “fear of forgetfulness” loses its driving power, making the archive less of an exercise in information conservation and more of, what I consider to be, a digitally accessible, globally ubiquitous database.

To me, technology has just made the storage bin or museum or the raw material from Derrida’s “past,” infinitely closer. And with this newly acquired propinquity to the source material (and information in general) people can now interact with archives. We cannot only interpret, but we can influence, inform and alter anything from funnel cake recipes to the useful application of psychoanalysis. Technology has made the archive a decidedly living and malleable arrangement of information and ideas.



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