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. Continue reading

A Critique of Purity

Andre Forget

In my post last month about power relations in Canada, I suggested that multiculturalism has obscured the fact that the majority of real financial and political power in this country is still largely held by the descendants of European colonizers. I suggested that until power is more equally shared – until, that is, we see the same cultural and ethnic diversity on Bay Street and Parliament Hill that we see in Kensington Market or Ellice Avenue – we will remain haunted by the problems of racism and ethnic discrimination. I do not think this is an easy or straightforward goal to accomplish, nor do I think that accomplishing it will mean an end to oppression, bigotry, or inequality. The human race has a truly astounding capacity for nastiness, and I suspect that if racism is ever put to rest we will find other, equally irrational reasons to mistreat each other. Just as cancer and AIDS have replaced smallpox and Spanish influenza, racially-motivated hatred will be replaced with some other kind; however, just as the knowledge that cancer and AIDS will in turn be replaced by other diseases does not stop us from searching for cures, awareness of humanity’s stubborn capacity for violence should not keep us from resisting the violence we see around us.

But what does this resistance look like? Continue reading

William Morris and the Politics of Artistic Production

Jonathan Dyck

In 1889, William Morris delivered a lecture titled “The Arts and Crafts of Today,” which addressed the degraded state of labour and commerce in industrial England by working through the question of art’s purpose in everyday life. Not simply an indictment of late Victorian society, Morris’s lecture functions as a manifesto, justifying his radical position to an audience of artists while laying out the philosophy of the Arts and Crafts movement. Like the manifestos of later design movements, such as The Bauhaus, Morris’s lecture assumes a close relationship between what he calls the “applied arts” and the complex form of society at large. For both movements, the design manifesto is a polemical call to all creative labourers to recognize their collective capacity to overturn and transform the status quo; it is an attempt to articulate an alternative vision of society in which art does not simply mask reality but actually improves it. Continue reading