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Jacques Derrida. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. 

Translated by Eric Prenowitz. University of Chicago Press, 1996.


History and Origins

Data and Narrative

What is an Archive


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Jacques Derrida

information management

book reviews 


All reviewers take a slanted perspective on the book in question, but when the slant is as oblique as in this review the reader deserves a prior warning. Derrida's apparent focus in this book is in the question of memory as applied to an intellectual movement, specifically psychoanalysis. But he also reveals (not for the first time) an interest in a more general topic: the relationship between truth and authority. And it is this relationship, rather than the history of psychoanalysis, that I wish to explore further in this review.

The relationship between truth and authority has a particular and practical relevance to my work as a technology consultant. The modern organization puts increasing amounts of its corporate memory onto computerized data records. These data records are arranged in a structure, known as a data architecture. In some cases, the data architecture will have been carefully designed by information technologists with the active participation of the organization's managers; in other cases, the data architecture will have evolved piecemeal; but in all cases, the data architecture imposes particular alignments and associations between records, and promotes particular lines of thinking.

The data architecture is structured like a language. It is the official language of the organization, authorized by the computer and its high priests. (It is no accident that one of the most popular database systems is known as Oracle.) But with any formal language, there are always going to be some things that cannot be expressed in the language. Inevitably there are holes (or blind spots) in the data architecture.

This becomes a matter of particular concern for us when the data architecture actually inhibits organizational learning or strategic breakthrough, because it deflects thinking away from them. In such cases, the authority of the data architecture is opposed to the truths demanded by organizational or strategic change.

Aside from a general intellectual interest, therefore, my reading of Derrida (and this review) is motivated by my practice as a technology consultant, helping my clients to realise their desires with (or despite) the technologies with which they are blessed.

Finally, let me remark that I am not alone in wanting to take Derrida's writing in this direction. The dust jacket describes the book as 'a major statement on the pervasive impact of electronic media' and as 'a patient and rigorous reading of the presuppositions and implications of informatic culture'. Literal-minded readers will regard these claims as grossly misleading, because Derrida barely mentions email and other electronic media, except for the occasional throwaway remark. Other readers may read between the lines as I attempted to do: interpolating my own knowledge and ideas about electronic media into Derrida's analyses of other stuff. Here is another example of the exercise of authority: I try to discount the dust jacket's boasting adjectives (major, patient, rigorous), but my reading of the book is influenced by what the dust jacket claims the book is about.

History and origins

Most institutions and organizations have stories about their origins - a founding myth - a corporate memory that enables certain forms of corporate thinking and behaviour, and disables others. Many institutions have several contradictory myths: the Internet, for example, has at least three (US military pragmatism, anarchistic hackers paradise, commercial marketplace). To change an organization often requires exposing and deconstructing these myths.

It is perhaps not surprising that psychoanalysis in particular cannot be separated from its origins. Whereas most people accept or reject Darwinism or Marxism without knowing much about the private lives of Darwin or Marx, the history of psychoanalysis is tightly bound to the person of Freud. Some recent controversy revolves around questions of how Freud used his case material, whether Freud himself obeyed the modern scientific norms, the extent to which Freud's own theories changed in response to political convenience or his reaction to the death of his own father, rather than in response to the evidence he adduces. The existence and strength of this controversy is itself a sign of how much is invested in Freud's character.

In the book under review, Derrida looks at the history of psychoanalysis, and various attempts to reveal the truth about Freud. Given that psychoanalysis claims to have a special understanding of memories, particularly hidden memories, he shows how difficult it is to write about the hidden memories of psychoanalysis itself without falling into logical errors or infinite loops.

Data and narrative

The memory of an organization is located nowhere in particular but is found everywhere: partly on computer disks and tapes, partly on paper, partly in people's heads. The identity of the organization is constructed from the contents of this archive. When you enter an organization, you are presented with a wealth of narratives which convey the value system and beliefs of the organization, and indicate what things are appropriate to say and do, and what not.

What is an archive?

IT practitioners have a specialized meaning of archive of course. It's what we do to data that nobody ought to want any more, but we aren't allowed to delete it altogether, so we wipe it off the main database and stuff it onto tapes in a vault and God help anyone who wants to read it.

But what Derrida says about archives applies to any data store. He draws attention to the fact that the prefix arche (found in both archive and architecture) represents a starting point or founding act in both an ontological sense (this is whence it began) and a nomological sense (this is whence it derives its authority).

Data means: that which is given (to an organization) (from the past). Among the data there will be records of recent transactions and decisions, results of surveys and analyses, mixed up with a lot of much older stuff. But in order for an organization to assimilate these various data, the data must themselves be organized. And for learning to take place, data must be reorganized.

And this is where we slip into infinite loops.  The organization that organizes and reorganizes its own data, its own memory, its own archive, is thereby organizing and reorganizing itself.


Reading Derrida is a demanding activity, and this review only picks up on a fraction of the issues raised in the book. It is not only intellectually demanding, but can also be threatening, as the things we thought we could take for granted are taken apart in front of us. Derrida can be playful, but it's a deadly serious play.

Jacques Derrida. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression.

Translated by Eric Prenowitz. University of Chicago Press, 1996.

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veryard projects - innovation for demanding change veryard projects > people > jacques derrida > archive fever
Review written August 1997.
Technical update on November 8th, 2003.
Copyright © 1997 Richard Veryard