Carolyn Steedman, “Something She Called a Fever: Michelet, Derrida, and Dust”

Steedman, Carolyn. “Something She Called a Fever: Michelet, Derrida, and Dust.” The American Historical Review, vol. 106, American Historical Association, United States, 2001..doi:10.2307/2692943.

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Summary:

Steedman responds to Derrida’s Archive Fever and explores the purposeful consideration and, indeed, fever to archival work, the doubled Everythingness and Nothingness that it considers.

Keywords: Archives, Methodology, Method, History

Quotations:

“Derrida broods on revisionist histories that have been written out of these archives of evil (a shadow of a suggestion here, then, that it is not archives he has in his sights so much as what gets written out of archives: formal, academie history); but he broods as well on never giving up on the hope of getting proof of the past, even though documentary evidence may be locked away and suppressed” (1162).

“But as English-language readers, we are forced to have the fever, and, if we are historians, forced to exasperated expostulation that archives are nothing like this at all” (1163).

“In a parody (but not quite a parody) of empirical doggedness, we might ding to the coattails of one figure of Derrida’s, one image, one literal meaning of “fever” (which wasn’t even a word that was there to start with), and find not only a different kind of sickness but also the magistrate who is actually present in his text, though wrongly named” (1164).

“It remains completely uncertain—it must remain uncertain, that is its point—who or what rises up in this moment. It cannot be determined whether it is the manuscripts or the dead or both who come to life, and take shape and form” (1171).

“The archive that isn’t there in “Archive Fever” is not and never has been the repository of official documents alone. And nothing is there from the beginning. Archives hold no origins, and origins are not what historians search for in them. Rather, they hold everything in medias res, the account caught halfway through, most of it missing, with no end ever in sight. Nothing starts in the Archive, nothing, ever at all, although things certainly end up there” (1175).

“There is everything, or Everything, the great undifferentiated past, all of it, which is not history, but just stuff.” The smallest fragment of its representation (nearly always in some kind of written language) ends up in various kinds of archives and record offices (and also in the vastly expanded data banks that Derrida refers to in “Archive Fever”). From that, you make history, which is never what was there, once upon a time. (There was only stuff, fragments, dust.)” (1176).

“Contemplating Everything, the historian must start somewhere, but starting is a different thing from originating, or even from beginning. And while there is closure in historical writing, and historians do bring their arguments and books to a conclusion, there is no End—cannot be an End, for we are still in it, the great, slow-moving Everything” (1177).

“There is a double nothingness in the writing of history and in the analysis of it: it is about something that never did happen in the way it comes to be represented (the happening exists in the telling or the text), and it is made out of materials that are not there, in an archive or anywhere else” (1179).

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