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

The Words that Maketh Murder

A Remembrance Day review of PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake

Jonathan Dyck

“Memory forges the chain of tradition that passes events on from generation to generation.”
-Walter Benjamin, Schriften

“Let not England forget her precedence of teaching nations how to live.”
-John Milton, The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce

“The West’s asleep. Let England shake, weighted down with silent dead. I fear our blood won’t rise again.” With these somber words, a flinty-voiced PJ Harvey begins to taunts a futile “Bobby” whose only real cause or desire is the spread of indifference. It’s an eerie way to begin, especially when you already know what’s coming: a series of grim reflections on the necessary interplay between war and nation. On the opening title track, Harvey’s voice sounds detached—almost ironically so; her vocals playfully dance along to a xylophone melody lifted from Jimmy Kennedy and Nat Simon’s “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).” If Harvey’s narrator is right to accost the Bobby for his indifferent “smile,” she offers an even more chilling form of apathy when she blankly states, “England’s dancing days are done.” It’s the first of many jarring contradictions that make up one of this year’s best and most thought-provoking albums. It’s also a sobering critique of the West’s continuing, increasingly implausible faith in the idols of history and nation. Continue reading