55. Eros vs. Thanatos, Part 1: Archive Fever

Sigmund Freud, in Civilization and Its Discontents, claims, like the pre-Socratic Empedocles before him, that there are two “Heavenly Powers” or mutually opposing instincts: Eros and Thanatos. Freud characterizes these two principles as follows: eros is the instinct to conserve living substance as well as to join it into larger units; thanatos is the instinct to dissolve such units and return them to their primeval origin.[1]  Freud claims eros seeks to extend relationships in new ways whereas thanatos is conservative. The interplay between the two suggests a novel starting point for the study of problems: “The opposition which thus emerges between the ceaseless trend by Eros towards extension and the general conservative nature of the instincts is striking, and it may become the starting-point for the study of further problems” (65).

In his book Archive Fever (University of Chicago Press, 1996), Jacques Derrida takes Freud’s claim about this starting point seriously. He notes that thanatos is at the root of our desire to archive things: to protect them, preserve them, and, in many cases, bestow upon them political power and legitimacy as first principles or arche. After all, people must archive more and more because they must counter the corrosive powers of death. Derrida writes:

“There would indeed be no archive desire without the radical finitude, without the possibility of a forgetfulness which does not limit itself to repression.  Above all, and this is the most serious, beyond or within this simple limit called finiteness or finitude, there is no archive fever without the threat of this death drive, this aggression and destruction drive.  This threat is in-finite, it sweeps away the logic of finitude and the simple factual limits, the transcendental aesthetics, one might say, the spatio-temporal conditions of conservation” (19-20).

Derrida is obviously building on Freud who claims that a society in the grips of thanatos “is perpetually threatened with disintegration.  The interest of work in common would not hold it together; instinctual passions are stronger than reasonable interests” (59). For Derrida this threat leads to “a compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic desire for the archive, an irrepressible desire to return to the origin, a homesickness, a nostalgia for the return to the most archaic place of absolute commencement” (91).

These ideas are interesting to ponder in relation to our media-saturated, socially-networked world where the past, often in the name of nostalgia, is constantly being preserved more and more. Indeed, images telling a fairly accurate summary of people’s lives will linger in virtual space far beyond their graves. In many cases, people tend more to their archives than they do to the lives they lead outside them. And we could go on to point out all the ways in which the narratives of the past are revisited, revised, and evaluated with reference to political power. But why all this archive fever? Perhaps the answer is nothing particularly profound; perhaps it is simply the case that we finally have the technology to undertake these massive efforts at preservation. Perhaps people would have done the same in the past but couldn’t. But maybe there is more to the explanation why archive fever is present now more than ever. So, given the above speculations from Freud and Derrida, I have a few speculative questions of my own:

Could it be that the death drive, the anarchivic condition for the possibility of the archive, is present more than ever as well? What aspects of self, society, and nature might be aspects of the death drive with its conservative instinct to run everything down into inanimate sameness and eternal oblivion? Will archive fever help us escape the forces that seek to reduce us to oblivion? Or is this fever preventing us from seeing that it is by looking forward through new forms of creation – eros – that life will have a shot at cheating death? To be sure, we need to look back to move forward. But isn’t the obsession with that which was a form of thanatos?

For Eros vs. Thanatos part 2 go here.


[1]Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents.  Translated by James Strachey.  (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1961), p. 65.  Hereafter page number.


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