Archiving the Messianic: Derrida, Benjamin, and the politics of memory

There is no archive without a place of consignation, without a technique of repetition, and without a certain exteriority. No archive without outside. (Derrida, Archive Fever, 11)

For most of us, the archive represents a practical space of investigation, with its contents sitting in darkness, waiting to be reassessed and rediscovered. What’s perhaps less obvious about the archive is its construction, an analogue to the scholar’s privileged cultural position and, along with it, the hermeneutical agenda she brings to her research. Since Derrida’s Archive Fever, the archive has become a important concept for cultural theory and historical methodology. Of course, Derrida wasn’t the first to question the archive’s authority or the ways that history is produced by it. Not simply a site for the preservation of cultural artifacts or a repository of a past authenticity, the archive also names a basic procedure of inclusion and exclusion, a simultaneous remembering and forgetting that proceeds from any attempt to archive. Derrida’s work invites us to consider several crucial outcomes of this process: first and foremost, that a dialectic exists between what gains historical legitimacy through its preservation, and what is condemned to oblivion by being ignored or repressed. The archive always entails some kind of exteriority and for this reason opens up the discussion to theology (the messianic) and psychoanalysis (repression). Secondly, while discussions of the archive have traditionally been driven by questions surrounding the organization of the past, Derrida’s work considers how these ongoing modes of organization orient us toward the future.

The possibility of forgetfulness, without which a properly “archival” desire could not function, is not only limited to repression: it is one of several names given to the forgetting that is always precedes the work of memory. In Derrida’s treatment archive paradoxically collects and orders that which we desire to preserve for the future by removing it from present circulation. Put another way, the archive safeguards its contents in the name of access by making them inaccessible. The process of archiving thus mirrors a process of forgetting and repression that can also be described as eco-nomic: “it keeps, it puts in reserve, it saves, but in an unnatural fashion, that is to say in making the law (nomos) or in making people respect the law” (7). Appropriate, then, that “archive” derives from arkheion: “a house, a domicile, an address, the residence of superior magistrates, the archons, those who commanded” (2). The ability to preserve and organize, in other words, also entails the authority to interpret.

It all sounds quite abstract, but Derrida makes clear that the question of the archive is not “the question of a concept dealing with the past that might already be at our disposal or not at our disposal, an archivable concept of the archive” (36). In other words, a concept of the archive already presumes some degree of distance from its operation. Thus Derrida finds it useful to speak of the archive as aporetic repetition: “The archivist produces more archive, and that is why the archive is never closed. It opens out to the future” (68). Rather than a straightforward concept, the archive names a cultural procedure that remains bound up with a fetish for a singularity not unlike Walter Benjamin’s description of the “aura.” As Derrida writes,

With the irreplaceable singularity of a document to interpret, to repeat, to reproduce, but each time in its original uniqueness, an archive ought to be idiomatic, and thus at once offered and unavailable for translation, open to and shielded from technical iteration and reproduction. (90)

This is the seemingly impossible task of the archive: to remain open and accessible, to allow for reproduction and repetition without doing violence to its contents, all the while resisting the idols of presence and authenticity. Not an easy task but an unavoidable reality, particularly within an institution like the university.

Perhaps this is why the ability of the archive to “call into question the coming of the future” hinges upon the messianic, an arrival that is not predicated by any conditions or defined by any knowable content (33). Derrida argues that the injunction of memory to preservation and repetition, “even when it summons memory or the safeguard of the archive, turns incontestably toward the future to come” because such repetition is always, “in the same stroke,” the “anarchive” of the death drive, the violence of forgetting, and thus “the possibility of putting to death the very thing, whatever its name, which carries the law in its tradition” (79). So, on the one hand, Derrida provides us with a way of understanding the archive as an aporetic structure that is always already active in every impression (which is always accompanied by a suppression or repression, a spectral presence haunting the archive, etc.); on the other hand, the very repetition of this process is an opening to the “future to come,” to which he gives the name the “messianic.”

As Derrida notes in Specters of Marx, the term “messianic” is a repurposed term from another Jewish critic. And, indeed, Derrida isn’t alone in his retrieval of Benjamin (See Agamben, Critchley, etc.). Although the messianic serves a somewhat different function in Benjamin’s work (particularly within his “Theses on the Philosophy of History”), it is also related to his own mal d’archive. In “recollection,” Benjamin writes in his Arcades Project, “we have an experience that forbids us to conceive of history as fundamentally atheological, just as we are not allowed to write it in immediately theological concepts” (N8, 1). This statement points to a necessarily negative theology that governs Benjamin’s thought. “Were Benjamin to use theological concepts openly,” explains Susan Buck-Morrs, “he would be giving Judaic expression to the goals of universal history; by eschewing them, he gives universal-historical expression to the goals of Judaism” (244). According to Derrida, the difference of the messianic from Benjamin’s messianism is a formal one. Preference is given to “messianic rather than messianism, so as to designate a structure of experience rather than a religion” (Specters 211). At the same time, however, both figures understand the term not simply as a future event, but as a negation permeating every historical moment. Yet the political overtones of this are quite different for Benjamin. By his understanding, messianism entails the redemption of what history proper fails to represent: political opportunities lost, individual and collective voices silenced. As Benjamin writes, “Some things pass down to posterity by making them untouchable and thus conserving them, others pass on situations, by making them practicable and thus liquidating them” (Reflections 302). Benjamin is not so much after an alternative history, a secret narrative that runs beneath the history of the powerful; rather, suggests Terry Eagleton, he directs his attention to “a series of spasms or crises within class history itself, a particular set of articulations of that history” (48). Rather than charting out an alternate course, in other words, Benjamin draws such crises into a complex “constellation” produced by the historical necessities of the present (in his case, Fascism). Eagleton summarizes, “If fascism eradicates history by rewriting it in its own image, historical materialism rewrites the past in order to redeem it in its revolutionary validity. . . . Materialism must insist on the irreducibility of the real to discourse; it must also remind historical idealism that if the past itself—by definition—no longer exists, its effects certainly do” (51).

Even if we follow Derrida and refuse to accept the political theology inherent to Benjamin’s messianism, we can still appreciate its dialectical function within his philosophy. To put it enigmatically, theology’s disappearance is the condition of possibility for its rescue: just as the evacuation of theology revolutionized Baroque allegory, so utopian desire marked by its disappearance can and must be trusted as the motivation of political action “because it teaches us that the present course of events does not exhaust reality’s potential . . . [and] because revolution is understood as a Messianic break from history’s course and not its culmination” (Buck-Morss 243).

But this relationship between theology and politics can also be conceived of the other way round. Following Fredric Jameson, Alberto Toscano suggests that the resurgence of the concept of the messianic in critical theory is “symptomatic of the complex predicament of a thinking that wants to preserve the assertion of a politics of radical transformation while navigating between the Scylla and Charybdis of an untenable philosophy of history, on the one hand, and a resignation to the present, on the other” (240). Toscano’s concern here has to do with the displacement of responsibility and struggle that a return to the messianic supposedly engenders. For all Derrida’s cautioning and theoretical restlessness, the messianic remains a limit-concept: what he would characterize as “an experience of the impossible” that arrives independent of preparation or expectation. For Toscano, it reflects a larger sense of powerlessness on the left and with it, a genuine fear of any kind of prescriptive or ontological program. Toscano’s is not a particularly profound critique, but it does guide us back to the domain of history and political strategy, repositioning Derrida’s treatment of the messianic within a broader ideological context and, in this way, suggests the production of another kind of archive, perhaps with more concrete implications.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. New York: Schocken Books, 2007.

—. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1969.

—. The Arcades Project. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Buck-Morss, Susan. The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991.

Derrida, Jacques. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Trans. Eric Prenowitz. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

—. Specters of Marx. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Eagleton, Terry. Walter Benjamin or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism. London: Verso, 1981.

Toscano, Alberto. Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea. London: Verso, 2010.

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