Derrida, Cox, and the Digital Archive

The friction between individuals and authority, and the concepts contained in a single word play large roles in Derrida’s book. He begins by tracking the root of the word archive to highlight two qualities: “commencement” or the history that archives track; and “commandment” or the laws that archives create. He then analyzes the historical compartmentalization of the word as the individuals who commenced the history turned over their documents to people in authority to structure those documents. The interplay between the two groups features prominently in both Derrida’s and Cox’s articles, because the advent of digital technologies subverts in some ways the separation between the two. Cox writes, “Now we must more consciously plan out what our personal archives will look like and the functions it will serve, understanding that it will consist of paper records, printed ephemera, photographs, memorabilia, and digital materials.” Here, the citizen archivist both “commences” the history worth archiving, while “commanding” the ways in which it is archived. The digital technologies involved democratize the process as the individuals create and record their own archives. Cox’s citizen archivists in many ways bridge the gap between Derrida’s two concepts by becoming the commencer and commander of their archived materials.

In his writing about the first archives Derrida also remarks that the transition documents and files made from the private individual to the public sphere did not necessitate a transition from the secret to the non-secret. Early archives were kept by state authorities so their discretion determined the accessibility of the archived material to the public. As Cox points out, though, the resources to archive in this age are much more widespread. In fact, one could create and maintain a Facebook page or blog for free with the Internet access at public libraries. Of course, there is no complete overthrow of institutionalization, because the website’s terms of service as well as the limitations of digital technologies create a type of institution in themselves. Likewise, Cox’s suggestion that archivists should instruct the public implicitly impart an established thought to the citizen archivist. These structures do not, however, diminish the dramatic effects digital technologies have had on archives.

Question: If digital services like Facebook are used as an archive, then how would changes in its terms of service or user interface impact its place as an archive? Can it stop being an archive?



  1. As the management of Facebook can be seen as the “authority” which controls the access to their archives, it seems sensible that any changes they make to their terms of service would impact the accessibility of different facets of their records. However, it is interesting to think about whether any changes by them will be accepted by the public, especially restrictions to shared information. If Facebook was to limit access so much that many wouldn’t consider it an archive, would there be any use in Facebook or other social media services? It seems that their main purpose is to act as a daily archive for individuals, combining many of the items discussed by Cox (digital photos, diaries, etc.) into one place.

  2. I have often wondered this myself. For the past 4-5 years, I have used Facebook as the primary method of “archiving” the important moments in my life. If it were to crash or Facebook changed something, I would lose everything. I also have contemplated backing up these events and photos on an external hard drive, but I feel as if these too may become obsolete one day.

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