Academic journal article New Formations

Shelf-Life: Biopolitics, the New Media Archive, and 'Paperless' Persons

Academic journal article New Formations

Shelf-Life: Biopolitics, the New Media Archive, and 'Paperless' Persons

Article excerpt

It is possible that I now know something that he did fear. Let me say how I arrived at this assumption. Well inside his wallet was a sheet of paper, folded long since, brittle and broken along the creases. I read it before I burned it. It was written in his finest hand, firmly and evenly; but I perceived right away that it was only a copy. 'Three hours before his death', it began. It was about Christian IV I read it several times before I burned it ... I now understand very well, by the way, that a man will carry, for many a year, deep inside his wallet, the account of a dying hour ... Can we not imagine someone copying out, let us say, the manner of Felix Arver's death? ... He became perfectly lucid, and explained to her that the word was 'corridor' not 'collidor'. Then he died.

Rainer Maria Rilke, Notebooks of Malte Laurids Briggs

In his text, the writer sets up house. Just as he trundles papers, books, pencils, documents untidily from room to room, he creates the same disorder in his thoughts. They become pieces of furniture that he sinks into, content or irritable. He strokes them affectionately, wears them out, mixes them up, re-arranges, ruins them. For a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live. In it he inevitably produces, as his family once did, refuse and lumber. But now he lacks a storeroom, and it is hard in any case to part from leftovers. So he pushes them along in front of him, in danger of filling his pages with them. The demand that one harden oneself against self-pity implies the technical necessity to counter any slackening of the intellectual tension with the utmost alertness, and to eliminate anything that has begun to encrust the work or to drift along idly, which may at an earlier state have served, as gossip, to generate the warm atmosphere conducive to growth, but is now left behind, flat and stale. In the end, the writer is not even allowed to live in his writing.

Theodor Adorno, 'Memento' in Minima Moralia

In Jacques Derrida's later work one frequently encounters notable semantic shifts in terminology with regard to writing, storage devices, the archive, and paper, as he addressed the effects of the shift from the era of paper to multimedia technologies of writing. In Archive Fever, Derrida returned to his essay on Sigmund Freud's 'Note upon the "Note Upon Mystic Writing Pad"' in 'Freud and the Scene of Writing' to ask what difference it would make to psychoanalysis had Freud sent faxes and email rather than postal letters, and in Paper Machine, Derrida returns to his rereading of Freud in Archive Fever to ask what difference the shift from paper as a material support to virtual 'paper' might make. (1) Moreover, in 'Typewriter Ribbon: Limited Ink (2)', Derrida returned to the account of archive fever he had formulated 'elsewhere' in Archive Fever. (2) The writing machine and typewriter ribbons, the answering machine, word processor, tape recorder, and other storage devices, such as the photograph, and the 'subjectile', the material support or 'technical substrate', all came to matter increasingly to Derrida in ways they did not in his earlier accounts of non-phenomenal arche-writing, the trace, and the supplement to which he contrasted phenomenal 'writing in the general sense' (hieroglyphs, ideograms, alphabets, and so on). (3)

While rethinking the archive in relation to new media, Derrida was also rethinking, on a different channel, a biopolitical and ontological question about paper documents that put deconstructive pressure on seemingly unquestionable oppositions between materiality and virtuality (or spectrality), the human and the machine, the human and the animal, the document and the work of art (PM). In a chapter of Paper Machine entitled 'Paper or Me, You Know ... (New Speculations on a Luxury of the Poor)' Derrida deconstructed a distinction between persons with papers and persons without them, 'undocumented' or sans-papiers in French:

   The 'paperless' person is an outlaw, a nonsubject legally, a
   noncitizen or the citizen of a foreign country refused the right
   conferred, on paper, by a temporary or permanent visa, a rubber
   stamp. … 
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