Of Cinder, Ash: The Rhetorical Address of Burning Memory

Of Cinder, Ash: The Rhetorical Address of Burning Memory

Rhetoric Society of America (2016)

From: Occupying Memory (Outwork) — Fire in the Archives

When one is on fire, occupied by memory, one must write; “the one who writes is first of all called to write” (Davis, Inessential 9). One must write because memory is burning up, because writing is memory’s substitute and/or prosthesis; but more importantly, radically, writing can take memory’s place. “Because the archive, if this word or this figure can be stabilized so as to take on a signification, will never be either memory or anamnesis as spontaneous, alive and internal experience” (Derrida, Archive 11). There will never be memory or anamnesis, so-called “live memory,” that is not already-archival, contaminated by the surrogate of inscription. “Can one imagine an archive without foundation, without substrate, without substance, without subjectile” (26-27)? No archive without an outside. No time to explain, though, not while the archive is ablaze and the conflagration continues to spread, not while occupying memory calls one to write and/as it drives one towards death.

On the one hand, Jacques Derrida explains, to come down with “archive fever” (mal d’archive) is to burn with passion for memory, for inscription and archivization (91); one is en mal d’archive insofar as one is seized/compelled by “repetition that burns with a passion for discovery” (Caruth, Literature 83).[19] On the other hand, however, “anarchiving destruction belongs to the process of archivization and produces the very thing it reduces, on occasion to ashes, and beyond” (Derrida, Archive 94). —When no-thing remains like Sylvia Plath’s smoldering remnants:

Ash, ash—

You poke and stir.

Flesh, bone, there is nothing there— (Plath 9)[20]

In other words, one’s fever for written, memorial inscription is born from the anarchivic, archiviolithic “death drive” (Todestrieb), “an aggression or a destruction drive: a drive, thus, of loss” (Derrida, Archive 9-10), in particular, its unrestrained and unrelenting amplification by trauma/mourning. This drive is perhaps itself “memory,” not a figure or trace but a line, irrecoverable but undeniable as “[an] in-finite movement of radical destruction without which no archive desire or fever would happen” (94). Being driven to occupy memory, the drive to archive, is produced by occupying memory (n.). And not only is the psychical archive threatened by fever, so is “the archive [or] consignation, the documentary or monumental apparatus as hypomnēma, mnemotechnical supplement or representative, auxiliary or memorandum” (11). Every last page stands to be thrown in the blaze and/or figural fire[21] that includes the revision/rewriting of history. Just as there are courageous, iconoclastic forces struggling to institute counter-memory and counter-history, there are those working to burn archives of pain, suffering, and death, which they have brought about and wish to efface (90).

Those insidious forces seeking to torch every trace of horrors they have wrought “verg[e] on radical evil” (20) when it is not enough to incinerate the archive (psychical or documentary); they verge on “evil” insofar as they are compelled to eliminate the very activity of elimination. Archive fever, Derrida explains, “works to destroy the archive: on the condition of effacing but alsowith a view to effacing its own ‘proper’ traces—which consequently cannot be called ‘proper’ … [archive fever] leaves no monument” (10-11). Moreover, Derrida designates such effacements of effacement “abusive” and adds “[s]uch abuse opens the ethico-political dimension of the problem” (19). Yet significantly, the ethical and/or political dimensions of burning the archive have no set scope: “[t]heir treatment is equally massive and refined in the course of civil or international wars, of private or secret manipulations” (Derrida in Caruth, Literature 76). Mal d’archive entails setting memory ablaze at domestic as well as geopolitical levels, not merely as figural forgetting, but occupying, colonizing, memory with its disease. That is, with Caruth, what is at stake in archive fever is “becom[ing] witness to the strange notion of a memory that erases” (78), where memory’s most acute threat is not forgetting but memory itself. The issue regards, she elaborates,

unique events who archives have been repressed or erased, and whose singularity as events, can be defined by that erasure. They can indeed themselves be called ‘archives du mal’—archives of evil (or suffering)—because they not only leave an impression but hide their impression. They involve evil or suffering, that is, precisely because they hide or prohibit their own memory. (76)

For example, an event occurs that is archived in the psyche of a survivor-witness or in legal/political documentation.  The archive is burned by literally destroying the survivor and key documents or “burned” by destroying the survivor’s capacity to testify and/or any record of wrong-doing. Then, any evidence of burning or “burning” the archive is over-written by augmenting or instituting an alternative, often-official record of events. In short, “no trace remains of the victims, so that no one can testify to the fact that they are victims or so that they cannot even testify to it themselves” (Derrida, Points… 389). Such “absolute weakness,” when tied to alternative or “official” records, when they archive otherwise and “memory … make[s] history precisely by erasing it” (Archive 79), thus produce archives du mal. Such becoming-mal explains why Caruth contends something new and terrible is born through archive fever: “the possibility of a history constituted by the erasure of its own witness, a history that burns away the very possibility of conceiving memory, that leaves the future itself, in ashes”[22] (81). When one burns with passion for memory (en mal d’archive), one is racing against the movement of becoming-ash, becoming “secret.”[23] Caruth must therefore ask: “To burn with archive fever: Does it mean to bear witness or to be ash” (87)? Does occupying memory lead to testimony, death, or both?

What am I going to turn into.

I am afraid.


Come with me. (Duras, No More 43)


As Caruth phrases it, “the burning question” here regards “the movement of a burning memory—a burning for memory as well as its burning up” (Literature xi), a burning that drives one to archive/inscribe as memory is turned to ash. Caruth, however, seems optimistic about the chances for unveiling how memory has been effaced—perhaps arresting ashen metamorphosis—since she mentions not only “the shock of the memory that effaces” but also “the shock of the discovery of this memory” (79).[24] Yet she further notes how “the figure of ash … refers us to events that may or may not have a simple referent, but are signs of the unimaginable past or the unimaginable future” (88). When it comes to detecting ashes as “signs,” it is not a question of looking for hermeneutic figures or what they signify since the ash is precisely a void-trace of signification/figuration.

Enter Derrida’s cryptic text Feu la cendre, whose title defies translation.[25] Throughout, he discusses ashes/cinders as “obviously a figure, although no face lets itself be seen … [ashes/cinders] are what nam[e] one thing in the place of another, [metonymically] … while figuring another from which nothing figurable remains” (Cinders 53).[26] The ash/cinder is the “lost memory of what is no longer here” (13), “annihilation without remainder … or decipherable archive” (Sovereignties 68); it is an oblique designation of the (non-)place where the presence of memory’s absence is not thought but felt:

and I sense it,

I mean the odor of the body, perhaps his. All these

cinders, [s/]he feels them burning in his[/her] flesh. (Cinders 31)

Derrida elaborates upon how the “[c]inder remains … It remains from what is not, in order to recall at the delicate, charred bottom of itself only nonbeing and nonpresence” (23). In other words, the ash/cinder occupies or haunts where memory has been burned up. “There are cinders there, cinders there are, this is what takes place in letting a place occur, so that it will be understood: Nothing will have taken place but the place. Cinders there are: Place there is [il y a lieu]” (19-21). Such observations regarding the (non-)place of cinders seem key since they suggest the ash/cinder emits an address through its production of seemingly empty space. Where memory has been burned up still nonetheless cries out, possessing one through a spectral force. Ashes/cinders call one to question disappearances, or more precisely, the disappearance of disappearances. The cinder sends a content-less message to those who listen for, paradoxically, precisely what is not there.

The cinder is, in other words, a sender (akin to what Walter Benjamin calls a flame-like “bearer” and Cixous terms an “emitter”).[27] As it smolders it appears to pull one towards the strange evidence constituted by the in-explicable and un-imaginable, “attesting for the absence of attestation” (Blanchot in Derrida, Sovereignties 96). The ash/cinder burns where “the very sign of destruction is carried off. The name of the victim is effaced” (Derrida, Points… 389). And yet, says Derrida, the phrase il y a là cendrethere are cinders there, cinders there are—“spoke all on its own [and he] had to explain [him]self to it, respond to it—or for it” (Cinders 4). Such speaking of cinders was moreover a “fatally silent call that speaks before its own voice was made audible” (4). “Fatal,” since like archive fever ashes/cinders occupy and tear one from oneself to attend erasure by burning, compelling a re-turn to what Cixous names not only “places of fire” but “the scene of the crime” (Three 53).

Through affecting a re-turn, the rhetorical force of ashes/cinders suggest there is no perfect crime, one that is entirely erased—producing pure absence of memory—wherein one has managed to hide all the evidence. One can burn all the bodies, all records of burning, replace all records with new records that say nothing of burning or even audaciously claim those who burned did the burning, and still …

Just suppose [, avers Derrida,] I would have asked, that this saying only gives a signal and only in order to say nothing other than itself: I am a cinder signal, I recall something or someone of whom I will say nothing but this rough sketch obviously in order to say that nothing will have had to annul what is said in its saying, to give it to the fire, to destroy it in the flame, and not otherwise. No cinder without fire [feu]. (18-19)

Even without mnemic figures or irrecoverable, forgotten traces as guides, there may yet remain the whispered trace of a trace, which is to say, no-thing; “I understand that the cinder is nothing that can be in the world, nothing that remains as an entity[étant]” (55). No-thing that, strangely, becomes quasi-proof precisely because there is no perfect crime. There are cinders signaling and there are no cinders without fire. Even if the flames have swallowed everything, suggests Emily Dickinson,

The memory of my ashes

Will consolation be (Dickinson 18)[28]

(Thank You.)

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