Burning Books

In a commentary written not long before Derrida’s death, an elaboration of a keynote address he gave to a conference to inaugurate the Helene Cixous archive of the Bibliothéque Nationale, there is a definition of the library as a place ‘devoted to keeping the secret but insofar as they give it away’. It may be a twisting of the archival intention to read this quote without its context (Derrida is examining Cixous’ dreams of a certain Gregor) but the passage continues in a way that does suggest to me something of a primal scene for knowledge: ‘Giving a secret away may mean telling it, revealing it, publishing it, divulging it, as well as keeping it so deeply in the crypt of a memory that we forget it is there or even cease to understand and have access to it’ (Derrida 2003/2006:20). All through the book Derrida meditates on the library as a repository of secrets and certainties (certes as anagram), and more prosaically as a collection of boxes of papers, books, notes, sometimes objects, in a corridor, a room, an attic or a basement – and in the end suggests that there should be no Cixous archive without an ‘active research centre’ (83), which will be open to scholars throughout the world, and which would work, on this archive deposited in the BNF, wondering how it could be otherwise (87).

To think of an active library today might be a good way to take up the questions of ordering and protocols that Derrida had earlier set out in ‘Archive Fever’, but to do so would take a longer reading than I have time for (and anyway, see my chapter on that book in ‘Bad Marxism’).The thing is that the archive always already orders its secrets, as Derrida was at pains to point out. What I want to do is consider how it could be otherwise, and how in the French suburbs over the last week the criticism of books was generalized quite spectacularly as the burning of the library at Villiers Le Bel, ten miles from the centre of Paris: ‘burned books littered the floor’ according to one breathless report.

Of course the burning of books has its own charged and charred history, just as have the incidents (incendiary incitements) that led the youth of Paris to address the library in this critical mode. I am interested in the way scholars have addressed, or not addressed, these ‘street riots’. Derrida, about the same time as he was writing in praise of libraries, was also worrying about the youth that Sarkozy would later call racaille (rabble), but whom Derrida preferred to call voyous (Rogues). Here is the prescient, but somewhat problematic stereo-typing by JD:

‘The word voyou has an essential relation with the voie, the way, with the urban roadways [voire], the roadways of the city or the polis, and thus with the street [rue], the waywardness [dévoiement] of the voyou consisting in making ill use of the street, in corrupting the street or loitering in the streets, in “roaming the streets”, as we say in a strangely transitive formulation … Today the voyou sometimes roams the roadways [voies] and the highways [voiries] in a car [voiture], that is, when he or she is not stealing it or setting it on fire’ (Derrida Rogues 2005:65).

More on this inflammatory bon mot by Derrida and also on related street stuff here and here.

But – if you have now returned – what would be the way to navigate the convoluted questions of spontaneity and theory that arise here yet again (Lenin, Luxemburg). The urban uprising as a critique of books is an old tale, no doubt retold about Villiers le Bel after the night of November 25 by the theorists of polite politics who were looking elsewhere on the day. Police shot up in what seems a coherent tit-for-tat rapid response to the hit and run killing of Moushin (15) and Larami (16). Respontaneity is premeditated. There is already a theory of organization and action in play, far away from the book depository and its contemplative-juridical-tactical sermonizing.

In the UK a list might start with Notting Hill, Brixton, Toxteth, Manningham, Oldham, Bradford as one set of street level responses. Armed patrols, stop and search, custody deaths, profiling, detention as another – scaled up internationally on TV as war, rendition, kidnapping, death. In between, the routine bureaucratic arabesques of finance, health, education, workplace and housing scandals. At the high profile ends of hypocrisy we have the pomp and circumstance of Westminster, and the bad faith of humanitarian bombing campaigns. Pretension and war – both for democracy, gloss for the news.

So I am also collecting other tales of those who burn books. Send me your ashes. Nazi bonfires. Freud’s dream of burning books. Eco’s novel: ‘The Name of the Rose’, the Alexandria library, Somerset Maugham’s ‘Razors Edge’: great film starring Bill Murray whose quest for knowledge leads him down mines and up mountains, where he finally burns his texts to survive (see pic); the 1946 Tyrone Power version is good too. Have you ever burnt a book? Kafka destroying his notes, Bradbury’s ‘F’451’. And of course the Rushdie controversy – which starts in India but commentators keep on locating it in Bradford because that burning book image was so evocative…

Shall we keep now an archive of burnt books knowing that the protocols are already inscribed ‘in annals of fire’ (even in the fare future-past of Battlestar Galactica, the mentat Roslin cherishes her singed faux bible)?

Certainly the car yards are full of burned out hulks. Perhaps Mike Davis can be the librarian with his witty turns of phrase – see a commentary on his car bomb stories over at ‘Subtopia: A field guide to military urbanism‘.

More to come on this…