Jacques Derrida: 20 Years of Archive Fever

20 years after Jacques Derrida presented Archive Fever, Port asks lecturer Dr Beverley Butler about this seminal text’s relevance today

Photography Elisabeth Roudinesco

On Saturday 12 July the Freud Museum will mark the 20th anniversary of Jacques Derrida’s seminal lecture, Archive Fever, presented in June 1994, where he turned his deconstructionist lens on archiving. To celebrate this milestone, the museum has invited a number of academics who attended the lecture to recall their memories of it, and offer their interpretations of the work, exploring its continued relevance today.

In Archive Fever, Derrida exposed the contradictory nature of archives: how they are simultaneously public and private spaces, institutive and conservative, traditional and revolutionary.

“I have been invited to the symposium to discuss how Derrida’s Archive Fever has influenced my work” guest-speaker Dr Beverley Butler tells us. A Senior Lecturer in Cultural Heritage Studies at University College London, Dr Butler’s work has taken her to the Middle East. She explains, “My work opens up Derrida’s Archive Fever to explore the broader phenomenon of ‘heritage fever’”, a phenomena Butler believes is symptomatic of society’s “ever increasing concern with origins, past and ancestry. In Jerusalem, archival impulses, memory transmission and heritage discourse are bound up in both violent encounters and aspirations of projecting a better future”, she elucidates. The need for protecting, preserving and accurately archiving historic objects is still very present.

“Some who visit Jerusalem come to see themselves as a specifically ordained prophetic messenger”

Based in Jerusalem, a city in a country wracked by conflict, there’s a constant threat to preservation: “I explore ‘heritage fever’ in its widest sense as an obsession with certain kinds of archiving practice both technicist and messianic”. Dr Butler posits, “some (often with little previous religious conviction)” who visit Jerusalem “come to see themselves as a specifically ordained prophetic messenger who feel compelled to deliver a redemptive message” rather than an accurate history.

These heritage psychodynamics are related to ‘heritage fevers’ bound up in the colonisation and politicisations of Jerusalem. People’s appropriation of archaeological finds to support historic interpretations “has created highly conflictual and explosive situations in which violent clashes occur over specific iconic, sacred areas”. As a result, those in the field of cultural heritage have adopted “deeply felt projects to document oral history, popular tradition and narratives of suffering in highly charged contexts that are often networked with diaspora communities in New York, Jordan, Riyadh and London”.

Archiving and curation is divided by a fine line those in Dr Butler’s field are forced to tread. “I actually hope this line is becoming more blurred and more complex in the sense that this transforms the model of the all-powerful ‘archons’ of scientism presiding over an objective domain by replacing this with a model that is lead by archival subjectivities and agendas of social justice”, Dr Butler adds.

Whilst Derrida spoke of the effect the archive has on the ‘pure object’ – the subjection of an object to authority and its removal from its context – Dr Butler argues that she doesn’t “believe in the ‘pure object’, but object worlds that are both hybridised and act as hybridising forces. In the case of Jerusalem one encounters an overdetermined object whereas Alexandria continues to be idealised as an object of nostalgia loss and redemption”.

20 YEARS OF ARCHIVE FEVER takes place at the International Symposium at the Freud Museum, 12 July 2014. Click for more details


“The question of the archive is not a question of the past….. It is a question of the future the question of the future itself, the question of a response, of a promise, and of a responsibility for tomorrow”
Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever