Derrida and WikiLeaks

In his article Archive Fever Derrida suggests that the desire to preserve information is in some way a symptom of an inbuilt and unavoidable desire to destroy it. Drawing on Freud’s concepts of the pleasure principle and the death drive, Derrida argues that an information store (archive) on the one hand involves a desire to safeguard information for the internal consumption and edification of the people holding on to it, but it also entails the need to reveal information to the outside world and for the benefit of others. Letting information out in some way destroys it.

Punch tape reader
Punch tape reader, Bletchley Park, UK

I have difficulty translating this insight to everyday understandings of information storage. Fragile manuscripts need eventually to be exposed to unregulated climatic conditions and the touch of human hands in order to be studied. There are risks in so exposing the physical archive. In order to conserve there’s a sense in which you have to risk destroying the thing you want to conserve by exposing it to the outside world. Then there’s the risk that comes from putting your information out to public view. Information can be copied and exploited by others. But I don’t think Derrida was referring to the fragility of old documents or risk to one’s claim on intellectual property in highlighting the destructive tendency inherent in the keeping of archives.

The supposed contradiction of the archive is well illustrated through the phenomenon of WikiLeaks. This very public revelation of secret government communications exposes a propensity within organisations and institutions to keep secrets. Institutions want and need to be secretive, to keep information hidden, as a way of preserving their authority. But government departments and private organisations also insist on storing those secrets, deliberately harbouring information they would rather not expose.

Institutions store records, memos, transcripts, emails, and “cable” messages in drawers, file boxes and on servers. Such incendiary documents are time bombs of an organization’s own making, kept officially and ready to be stumbled upon or leaked. Even if their exposure doesn’t bring the institutions that harbour these secrets tumbling down, they at least require the expenditure of labour to restore order, effect cover ups and re-instate the organisation’s authority. The secrets on which the organisation depends entail huge risks and costs, but are after all essential for its operations.

So as well as “giving something a form,” information has its origins in the concept of the secret. Think of “to inform” as “to disclose incriminating evidence,” the first meaning outlined in the Oxford English Dictionary. The archive is a collection of secrets, some of which are essential, such as staff records, and some can be exposed for the organisation’s benefit, as in the case of a database of e-books for purchase, or the Home Office’s instructions on how to get a passport. But some secrets can be lethally destructive of their hosts. I think Derrida is referring to this primary characteristic of information. At the core of the information concept is this tendency, if not the desire, to ruin and destroy, the opposite of educating, edifying and building up.

The revelations from the WikiLeaks website raises questions about the probity and trustworthiness we invest in leaders and organisations. Why must people say and do what they don’t want everyone to hear and see? Then there are the technologies and motivations at the disposal of those instigating the leaks. The revelations also raise questions about why those secrets are stored in the first place. Why are such records kept? The answer resides in the nature of organisations and institutions. We shouldn’t be so surprised when we reflect that no institution can survive without its secrets, and that concealment is at the heart of the information concept.

According to Derrida, “Nothing is less reliable, nothing is less clear today than the word ‘archive,’” and this trouble is due to “the trouble of secrets, of plots, of clandestineness, of half-private, half-public conjurations, always at the unstable limit between public and private, between the family, the society, and the State, between the family and an intimacy even more private than the family, between oneself and oneself” (57). Neither should we be surprised that one of the weapons being deployed against the WikiLeaks figurehead Julian Assange is the exposure of his own apparent private indiscretions.

Notwithstanding JFK’s injunction, “The very word ‘secrecy’ is repugnant in a free and open society,” we need secrets, and institutions. According to philosopher John Caputo “Institutions are the way things get done, and they are prone to violence … Nothing is innocent” (234).

Caputo, John D. 1987. Radical Hermeneutics: Repetition, Deconstruction, and the Hermeneutical Project. Bloomington, In.: Indiana University Press.
Derrida, Jacques, and Eric Prenowitz. 1995. Archive fever: a Freudian impression. Diacritics, (25) 2, 9-63.


  1. rcoyne99 says:

    See also Žižek, S., ‘Good manners in the age of WikiLeaks’, London Review of Books, 33: 2, 2011, 9-10. free

    1. Key quote from this essay: “The only surprising thing about the WikiLeaks revelations is that they contain no surprises. Didn’t we learn exactly what we expected to learn? The real disturbance was at the level of appearances: we can no longer pretend we don’t know what everyone knows we know. This is the paradox of public space: even if everyone knows an unpleasant fact, saying it in public changes everything.” The BBC-Jimmy Savile affair comes to mind.

  2. Hannah D says:

    While large organisations are the big holders of damaging information, the tendency for storing similar information on a personal level is increasing due to social media. Facebook allows users to create secret pages and upload content which can be seen only by yourself or selected friends. The idea of storing information which is destructive to the host is particularly relevant here. Many users have damaged their own reputation by accidentally leaking this information to their Facebook connections. Although some would say this is purely accidental, perhaps uploading (archiving) sensitive information about oneself is also a type of self directed authority.

  3. Julie says:

    Secrets will become less attracting if the leakage of them could not cause shocking influence or impression. We know that keeping a secret in this digital age is becoming harder or even impossible, but individuals keep upload and store their private photos and secrets on the social websites and cloud drive, and governments still store tremendous amount of negative or damaging documents in their database and archives. As I see it, maybe keeping secrets and the tendency of destroying it is like a contradictory balance. The government need to store and keep secrets to maintain the authority and well operation of the country, and the potential damage of leaking these secrets and people’s high desire of knowing all will then limit the amounts of secrets.

  4. Eva Zheng says:

    Confidentiality and decryption are two sides of a coin. There’s an old saying in China: a straight foot is not afraid of a crooked shoe. As far as I’m concerned, faced with high risks and uncertain tendency of market enterprises, a better solution is to reduce confidential information and expose more secrets. While Derrida claimed that “Nothing is less reliable, nothing is less clear today than the word ‘archive”, the primary tasks for the government are to reform the information processing strategy as well as supervising the responsibility system of WikiLeaks.

  5. Elaine Yu says:

    Obviously people have no secret in this digital world not to mention the government if someone wants to dig it out. While governments still try to hide something from people, until one day they were exposed to the public. At that time, they start taking measures to fix it (like a scandal). They just forget we are in digital era. There is no absolute secret among us. You can even know something of a stranger if you want. Wikileaks is just a start not the end.

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