English 9084B

Melancholy and the Archive

Instructor: Professor Jonathan Boulter
Winter Half Course.

Melancholy and the Archive examines how trauma, history, and memory are represented in key works of major contemporary writers (David Mitchell, Paul Auster, Haruki Murakami, Jose Saramago) and theorists (Derrida, Abraham and Torok, Blanchot, de Certeau). The course explores how these authors and theorists construct crucial relationships between sites of memory—the archive becomes a central trope here—and the self that has been subjected to various traumas, various losses. The archive becomes a central trope in contemporary literature and theory precisely to the degree that memory itself is threatened with erasure. The archive—be it a bureaucratic office (Saramago), an underground bunker (Auster), a radically discontinuous subject (Mitchell), or even a hole (Murakami)—becomes the means by which the self attempts to preserve and conserve his or her sense of history even as the economy of trauma threatens to erase the grounds of such preservation: as the subject or self is threatened so the archive becomes a festishized site wherein history is housed and accommodated. If the individual subject—as subject-who-remembers—is continually under the threat of annihilation, if, like Foucault’s face of humanity erased in the sand, the subject cannot be maintained as such, the archive, precisely, becomes the projected site of preservation, a prosthetic memory, as Pierre Nora suggests. The archive, in Freudian terms, becomes a space of melancholy precisely as the subject preserves not only a personal history or a culture’s history, but the history of the traumas that necessitates the creation of the archive as such.

The course thus examines the related—if not twinned—economies of melancholia and the archive. The archive, as traditionally conceived, is a location of knowledge, a place where history itself is housed, where the past is accommodated. The archive, thus, is intimately conjoined with cultural memory, with its preservation, perhaps even with its supplementation. The notion of the archive as supplement leads, naturally, into the idea—explored in various ways by all the authors and theorists here—that the archive is a place where history can, perhaps should, be fabricated, (un)consciously falsified: in order to preserve the integrity of individual subjects, to preserve and conserve, more specifically, the desires of individual subjects, the archive must be a space of fantasy and spectrality. Subjectivity, at once threatened, is simultaneously fabricated even and especially as it disappears. The work of these writers thus highlights a specific truth about the archive: it always is a space of the Imaginary, a space into which desire and loss, perhaps the desire for loss, is projected and maintained in a kind of melancholy stasis.