One of my motivations for reading Archive Fever was the influence this text has had on fan studies through Abigail Derocho’s great essay, “Archontic Literature.” Derocho argues that conceptualizing of popular and canonical texts as an archive allows us to read subsequent fan productions in a less hierarchical manner, and recognize how their addition to the “archive” changes the entire archive. Meaning that, other problematics aside, Kirk/Spock fanfiction has an effect on Star Trek episodes (a reciprocal form of the more obvious Star Trek → K/S relationship). Both are simply entries in the archive titled “Star Trek.”
I think this argument offers a lot of possibilities, but this only touches on one small aspect of what Derrida has to say about the archive and the relationship between the archive and those working in/on/around it.
Archive Fever was originally delivered as a lecture by Derrida at the Freud Museum in London, in which the psychoanalyist lived, died, and apparently saw patients. At the same conference, Jewish historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi was to give a talk based on his recent book Freud’s Moses. (The notes to AF mention that Yerushalmi was sick so someone else delivered his talk for him.) Archive Fever is structured as a response to Freud’s Moses, so it is probably useful to know that Freud and Derrida are both also Jewish (although arguably secular/atheist, which is a point of contention at the centre of this all).
Derrida frames his discussion of Yerushalmi’s work in terms of amazement. He is amazed that Yerushalmi makes claims about Freud (and Freud’s work) based on the existence of a Tanakh(*) given to him by his father. He is amazed that a historian suggests that his work will depends on future definitions of Jewishness and science. And he is amazed that a professional academic ends his book with the “Monologue with Freud” section – which addresses Freud directly and ends with a promise to keep the secret if the ghost would only whisper to Yerushalmi whether or not psychoanalysis is a specifically Jewish science.
To me, this amazement reads somewhere between a passive aggressive takedown of Yerushalmi’s work and more genuine respect for scholarly audacity which has led Derrida to revolutionary insights. Yerushalmi is really mostly interested in the specifics of Freud, but from his approach Derrida is able to make fairly revolutionary claims about how relationships between texts make possible and shape authority.
I can’t really touch on all the areas that Derrida explores, but I think the idea of the archive as a source of authority is something that isn’t fully accounted for by Derocho and which might have a big impact on what it means to try to connect popular or canonical texts to marginalized identities. Derocho writes that,
An archontic text allows, or even invites, writers to enter it, select specific items they find useful, make new artifacts using those found objects, and deposit the newly made work back into the source text’s archive. (65)
This suggests that fanworks have a quite democratizing effect on the archive. Derocho tempers this somewhat in an endnote that acknowledges how fan communities tend to value work differentially based on canonicity, but a big part of her focus is on the tendency of archontic literature to be produced by minority groups and to push back against the hegemonic tendencies of those who have the economic and cultural capital to produce popular media.
I would assume that part of what motivated Yerushalmi to write Freud’s Moses was to claim Freud and his work in the interest of Jewish representation. Derrida does not explicitly engage with this motivation, but some of the problems it raises are hinted at. He wonders at what it means to claim that an obligation to remember could only have been felt as a specifically Jewish “religious imperative.”:
Thinking about this justice, I wonder, trembling, if they are just, the sentences which reserve for Israel both the future and the past as such, both hope (“the anticipation of a specific hope for the future”) and the duty of memory (“the injunction to remember”), assignation which would be felt by Israel alone, Israel as a people and Israel in its totality (“only in Israel and nowhere else” “as a religious imperative to an entire people”). (77)
In tying the act of memory to Jewishness, does every act of remembering become Jewish? Surely not, but Derrida seems to suggest that this is the only way to logically parse Yerushalmi’s argument.
Derrida does not present it precisely as such, but this seems to me to be very much a problem about representation, and to present some complications for our desire to use archontic literature as a lever that leaves intact the weighty authority of canon while shifting it slightly to occupy a space of greater diversity. If we try to rescue texts by tying identities to them, do we not also contaminate those identities with those texts?
I have a lot of discussions about the way understanding of trans identity is compromised by media about trans people – do we not risk the same thing with headcanon(**) or fanfiction? Any time we try to justify a headcanon by some reference to canonical attributes, we tie those attributes to that identity. Headcanons always risk essentializing when they rely on canon as authority. It’s different to say “these characters are queer because I like both of them and the way they interact, and it makes me happy to imagine this as a relationship,” than to say that “this look is queer, this way of relating is queer.”
I’ve written about this a bit before, but I think slash is often more easily accepted in fandom than other fan reinterpretations that are related to identity. My hypothesis is that this has to do with erotic desire being seen as an only incidentally political expression of desire whereas reinterpretations of race, gender, or other aspects of identity are felt to be an activist intervention that is divorced from desire entirely. To be fair, I think most fans that protest what they perceive as political or social justice motivated headcanons are not going to be so disingenuous as to claim that the creators of these fan texts don’t actually like the original text their interpretation is based on. However, I think identity based changes are often seen as being politically motivated in a way that takes away from the fan’s ability to engage on the level of pure enjoyment. I think the reality might be that this is a form of political action that is actually based entirely in pleasure, though.
A couple of weeks ago I saw a really interesting argument on Tumblr about changing the race of superheroes. By argument, I actually mean two people arguing with each other across multiple posts, so this becomes a little tricky to reconstruct. Blogger youngbadmanbrown (who changed his username partway through from davosseaworthofficial) responded to a post about giving a black Spiderman an origin story where Uncle Ben was killed by police with a comment that it was unnecessary to change the backstory to make it work for a black Spiderman. This resulted in a fight between him and user fallofthenavigator (who has since deleted or moved their account), with youngbadmanbrown also posting a number of examples of other superheroes whose (unmodified) origin stories he felt could also take on a powerful resonance if the characters were rewritten to be black.
I don’t really have anything to say about accusations of whiteness thrown between these two black bloggers, but it seems really interesting to me that fallofthenavigator seems to be making an argument about what it takes for marginalized fans to have an affective connection to characters, whereas youngbadmanbrown is concerned with both the essence of Spiderman and the essence of blackness. I think fallofthenavigator is quite unfairly implying that youngbadmanbrown is speaking from a neoliberal hyperindivdualist perspective. My understanding of his argument (which I am pretty sympathetic to) is that there is a tendency (in both fan texts and commercial reimaginings) to tie race to a certain very limited set of experiences. The argument isn’t that police violence is not an important concern for black people or a major part of their experiences. It is a concern with what it means to make blackness a sign of police violence or police violence a sign of blackness. I hope I’m not stretching too far to say this discomfort shares some ground with Derrida’s amazement at Yerushalmi’s naming of the act of memory as Jewish.
At the same time, I understand wanting to feel represented and the idea of broad and indescriminate racebending or any other form of creating representation by pasting on the most superficial aspects of identity also seems problematic. youngbadmanbrown gets around that a bit when he says that these specific stories work as black stories, however this becomes a form of archive fever (mine? his?) as it takes the form of another text drawn into the Spiderman archive – trying to harness its authority and anticipating future texts which will continue to drawn on this ever-expanding corpus of commentary that regulate the essence of Spiderman-ness. That makes it seem like there is something much more radical about fan texts whose strategy is more “every character in the Harry Potter book series is trans just because I say they are and not because of any particular facts of Harry Potter or transness.” (***) Can the affect of representation be carried through an intentionally empty signifier, though?
There are basically three manners in which fan texts can attempt to introduce minority representation to an archive. Here they are, numbered (semi-facetiously) from least to most deconstructive:
- Rewriting identity as well as other aspects of the story in an attempt to better reflect that identity
- Rewriting identity and suggesting that this character has always fit the identity
- Rewriting identity as a trait that implies nothing essential about the character
This is already getting super long for a blog post, so I’m going to close things up here by suggesting that the last category might be the most interesting to think about. I don’t think there are very many who would say that we shouldn’t have more new texts that demonstrate how people experience marginalization, even among those who are concerned about the way that framing it in terms of identity might be an essentializing tendency in archontic literatures. Is there any space, though, for a use of identity that is more indexical than essentialist – can we say that this kind of archontic practice is anything other than the worst kind of empty individualist diversifying? If the desire for representation is for seeing oneself reflected in something outside oneself, what does this recognition/misrecognition mean when it is simultaneously acknowledged as being in name only? What is felt in response to this incredibly light impression of identity?
I think that maybe the best way to think about this is actually in terms of what isn’t being felt, or what is felt in response to earlier texts. We might understand the feeling of being unrepresented as fans feeling disconnected from popular texts because the non-presence of certain categories of identity is caused (in a non-deterministic way) by the structures of power that produce both that text and the category of identity itself. I think headcanons and fan texts that use identity in name only work without feeling like a kind of Magic School Bus/oh-so-postracial/post-gender/etc. thing because they draw attention to the gap between them and the ‘original’ as one that is purely based on authority and identity. I can’t fully explore this now and I might not be able to justify it in the future either, but this third fan strategy feels like an attempt to overcome a felt disconnection while refusing to use authority or be used as an authority on either an identity or a character.
(*)[Derrida uses the term bible, and apparently the term “Hebrew bible” is what is used generally by academics, but I have never heard Jewish friends refer to it this way.]
(**)[Headcanon is the (stated) belief of a fan in details of a text that are not explicitly decided by that text. Belief or preference for details that go against facts of a text is sometimes called headcanon, and sometimes called AU (alternate universe), but I am calling any fan texts that express a belief or preference for minority representation through existing popular characters headcanon. Declaring specific identities for characters is only one type of headcanon, but affirmations about other unspoken details of texts are not generally relevant to this particular topic.]
(***) [I am not really accounting for how these headcanons circulate and what their purpose seems to be, but my impression is that they are most often a sharing of a reading strategy that is intended to show solidarity for other marginalized readers. Searching for “headcanon,” “diverse headcanon,” or “poc/trans/queer headcanon” produces a lot of reasonable examples, but http://everytrollistrans.tumblr.com/ is a reasonable example of a fan submission generated archive of these headcanon texts (all relating to the webcomic Homestuck) and this is a reasonable example of a more visual form.]