Trouillot’s Silencing the Past

357199I also want to reject both the naive proposition that we are prisoners of our pasts and the pernicious suggestion that history is whatever we make of it. History is the fruit of power, but power itself is never so transparent that its analysis becomes superfluous. The ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots (xix).

I love this book. It is short, poetic, and has been transformative of how I think about history and my own work investigating the past and bringing it to bear on the present. As if that weren’t enough, it helps recapture the brilliance of the Haitian revolution while exposing how and why it has been silenced. That’s not all it does, but I think what it does best.

There is is some really interesting things about language in here, how history and historiography are shaped not just in how we tell the past, but in the very words that we use.

Human beings participate in history both as actors and as narrators. The inherent ambivalence of the word “history” in many modern languages, including English, suggests this dual participation. (2)

There’s a reminder of how language structures the ways in which we think:

The pernicious belief that epistemic validity matters only to
Western-educated populations, either because others lack the
proper sense of time or the proper sense of evidence, is belied by
the use of evidentials in a number of non-European Ianguages.
An English approximation would be a rule forcing historians to distinguish grammatically between “I heard that it happened,” “I saw it happen,” or “I have obtained evidence that it happened” every time they use the verb “to happen.” (7-8)

I also love the expansion of what history means, who makes it and tells it and who impacts on the ways it is understood, the critique of academic historians who tend to limit it.

Such debates suggest that historical relevance does not proceed directly from the original impact of an event, or its mode of inscription, or even the continuity of that inscription.
Debates about the Alamo, the Holocaust, or the significance
of U.S. slavery involve not only professional historians but ethnic and religious leaders, political appointees, journalists, and various associations within civil society as well as independent citizens, not all of whom are activists. This variety of narrators is one of many indications that theories of history have a rather limited view of the field of historical production. (19)

It also tries to shift how we view the ways in which history is made and by whom:

History, as social process, involves peoples in three distinct capacities: 1) as agents, or occupants of structural positions; 2) as actors in constant interface with a context; and 3) as subjects, that is, as voices aware of their vocality.

peoples are also the subjects of history the way workers are
subjects of a strike: they define the very terms under which some situations can be described. (23)

This in turn shifts how we write about it, what we focus on:

Thus between the mechanically “realist” and naively “constructivist” extremes, there is the more serious task of determining not what history is–a hopeless goal if phrased in essentialist terms–but how history works. (25)

Building on this reconceptualising of who makes history and how, is the ways in which so much history is lost, erased, silenced — and how we reclaim them.

Silences enter the process of historical production at four crucial moments: the moment of fact creation (the making of sources); the moment of fact assembly (the making of archives); the moment of fact retrieval (the making of narratives); and the moment of retrospective significance (the making of history in the final instance). (26)

To put it differently, any historical narrative is a particular bundle of silences, the result of a unique process, and the operation required to deconstruct these silences will vary accordingly. (27)

Thus the presences and absences embodied in sources (artifacts and bodies that turn an event into fact) or archives (facts collected, thematized, and processed as documents and monuments) are neither neutral or natural. They are created. As such they are not mere presences and absences, but mentions or silences of various kinds and degrees. By silence, I mean an active and transitive process: one “silences” a fact or an individual as a silencer silences a gun. One engages in the practice of silencing. Mentions and silences are thus active, dialectical counterparts of which history is the synthesis. (48)

One of my favourite sentences? ‘…one “silences” a fact or an individual as a silencer silences a gun.’

Deconstruct these silences we must, because above all this is about fighting the power that oppresses and silences, and building out own.

Power does not enter the story once and for all, but at different times and from different angles. It precedes the narrative proper, contributes to its creation and to its interpretation. Thus, it remains pertinent even if we can imagine a totally scientific history, even if we relegate the historians’ preferences and stakes to a separate, post-descriptive phase. In history, power begins at the source.

We can be hopeful, we can find traces of what has been silenced. Not everything is lost, and we can (and must) look to material remains.

What happened leaves traces, some of which are quite concrete–buildings, dead bodies, censuses, monuments, diaries, political boundaries–that limit the range and significance of any historical narrative. This is one of many reasons why not any fiction can pass for history: the materiality of the sociohistorical process (historicity 1) sets the stage for future historical narratives (historicity 2). (29)

But we must do this well, uncovering the working of power and the larger significance of our work:

The turn toward hitherto neglected sources (e.g., diaries. images, bodies) and the emphasis on unused facts (e.g ., facts of
gender, race, and class, facts of the life cycle, facts of resistance)
are pathbreaking developments. My point is that when these tactical gains are made to dictate strategy they lead, at worst, to a neo-empiricist enterprise and, at best, to an unnecessary restriction of the battleground for historical power. (49)

Silences Within Silences
The unearthing of silences, and the historian’s subsequent emphasis on the retrospective significance of hitherto neglected events, requires not only extra labor at the archives–whether or not one uses primary sources–but also a project linked to an interpretation. This is so because the combined silences accrued through the first three steps of the process of historical production intermesh and solidify at the fourth and final moment when retrospective significance itself is produced. (58-59)

And then there is ‘The Haitian Revolution as a non-event’, an immense and inspiring uprising that shifted global balances of power, yet is treated as peripheral where mentioned at all. There is a powerful discussion of why and how that should be, which explores how limits are created on people’s perceptions and their ability to understand events, and how these limits worked in European thinking.

The Haitian Revolution thus entered history with the peculiar characteristic of being unthinkable even as it happened. (73)

Thus the Enlightenment exacerbated the fundamental ambiguity that dominated the encounter between ontological discourse and colonial practice. If the philosophers did reformulate some of the answers inherited from the Renaissance, the question “What is Man?” kept stumbling against the practices of domination and or merchant accumulation. The gap between abstraction and practice grew or, better said, the handling or the contradictions between the two became much more sophisticated, in part because philosophy provided as many answers as colonial practice itself. (78)

Slavery and its foundations are, of course, one of the principal limits, all too obvious in Enlightenment discourse (yet never raised as such):

The Enlightenment, nevertheless, brought a change of perspective. The idea of progress, now confirmed, suggested that men were perfectible. Therefore, subhumans could be, theoretically at least, perfectible. More important, the slave trade was running its course, and the economics of slavery would be questioned increasingly as the century neared its end. Perfectibility became an argument in the practical debate: the westernized other looked increasingly more profitable to the West, especially if he could become a free laborer. A French memoir of 1790 summarized the issue: “It is perhaps not impossible to civilize the Negro, to bring him to principles and make a man out of him: there would be more to gain than to buy and sell him.” (80)

Above all, it is a discourse tied to the practicalities of maintaining domination and Empire:

Behind the radicalism of Diderot and Raynal stood, ultimately,
a project of colonial management. It did indeed include the abolition of slavery, but only in the long term, and as part of a process that aimed at the better control of the colonies. Access to human status did not lead ipso facto to self-determination. In short, here again, as in Condorcet, as in Mirabeau, as in Jefferson, when all is said and done, there are degrees of humanity. The vocabulary of the times reveals that gradation. When one talked of the biological product of black and of white intercourse, one spoke of “man of color” as if the two terms do not necessarily go together: unmarked humanity is white. (81)

This is not to make the demand that people of the past should understand the moralities of the present, but rather what it was about the past that made these moralities almost impossible to imagine:

I am not suggesting that eighteenth-century men and women should have thought about the fundamental equality of humankind in the same way some of us do today. On the contrary, I am arguing that they could not have done so. But I am also drawing a lesson from the understanding of this historical impossibility. The Haitian Revolution did challenge the ontological and political assumptions of the most radical writers of the Enlightenment. The events that shook up Saint Domingue from 1791 to 1804 constituted a sequence for which not even the extreme political left in France or in in England had a conceptual frame of reference. They were “unthinkable” facts in the framework of Western thought. (82)

Below are some fragments of how ideology sat uneasily, often contradictory within white understandings, how innocence of Black humanity was preserved ideologically in the pursuit of domination and profit:

Thus, next to a discourse that claimed the contentment of slaves, a plethora of laws, advice, and measures, both legal and illegal, were set up to curb the very resistance denied in theory.

Rather, each case of unmistakable defiance, each possible instance of resistance was treated separately and drained of its political content (83).

Built into any system of domination is the tendency to proclaim its own normalcy. (84)

When the news of the massive uprising of August 1791 first hit
France, the most common reaction among interested parties was disbelief: the facts were too unlikely; the news had to be false. (90)

Worldview wins over the facts: white hegemony is natural and taken for granted; any alternative is still in the domain of the unthinkable.  (93)

The international recognition of Haitian independence was even more difficult to gain than military victory over the forces of Napoleon. It took more time and more resources. more than a half century of diplomatic struggles. France imposed a heavy indemnity on the Haitian state in order to formally acknowledge its own defeat. The United States and the Vatican, notably, recognized Haitian independence only in the second half of the nineteenth century.  (95)

This is important not just to understand how domination worked, but also revolt:

Not only was the Revolution unthinkable and, therefore, unannounced in the West. it was also–to a large extent–unspoken among the slaves themselves. By this I mean that the Revolution was not preceded or even accompanied by an explicit intellectual discourse.

In that sense, the revolution was indeed at the limits of the thinkable, even in Saint-Domingue, even among the slaves, even
among its own leaders. We need to recall that the key tenets of the political philosophy that became explicit in Saint-Domingue/Haiti between 1791 and 1804 were not accepted by world public opinion until after World War II.(88)

By necessity, the Haitian Revolution thought itself out politically and philosophically as it was taking place. Its project, increasingly radicalized throughout thirteen years of combat, was revealed in successive spurts. Between and within its unforeseen stages, discourse always lagged behind practice. (89)

Thus in looking specifically at how the facts and the meaning of the Haitian Revolution have been (mis)understood, Trouillot uncovers two specific processes that he terms ‘Erasure and Trivialization: Silences in World History’:

I have fleshed out two major points so far. First, the chain of events that constitute the Haitian Revolution was unthinkable before these events happened. Second, as they happened, the successive events within that chain were systematically recast by many participants and observers to fit a world of possibilities. That is, they were made to enter into narratives that made sense to a majority of Western observers and readers. I will now show how the revolution that was thought impossible by its contemporaries has also been silenced by historians. (96)

The treatment of the Haitian Revolution in written history outside of Haiti reveals two families of tropes that are identical. in formal (rhetorical) terms, to figures of discourse of the late eighteenth century. The first kind of tropes are formulas that tend to erase directly the fact of a revolution. I call them, for short, formulas of erasure. The second kind tends to empty a number of singular events of their revolutionary content so that the entire string of facts, gnawed from all sides, becomes trivialized. I call the formulas of banalization…Both are formulas of silence. (96)

Thus domination continues on into the present, these interpretations having everything to do not just with the ways in which silences continue, but in the limits this imposes on how we understand the problems facing the present and how we imagine working towards a new future.

Finally, the silencing of the Haitian Revolution also fit the relegation to an historical backburner of the three themes to which it was linked: racism, slavery, and colonialism. In spite of their importance in the formation of what we now call the West, in spite of sudden outbursts of interest as in the United States in the early 1970s, none of these themes has ever become a central concern of the historiographic tradition in a Western country. (98)

That Hobsbawm and the editors of the Dictionary would probably locate themselves quite differently within England’s political spectrum is one indication that historical silences do not simply reproduce the overt political positions of the historians involved. What we are observing here is archival power at its strongest, the power to define what is and what is not a serious object of research and, therefore, of mention. (99)

Effective silencing does not require a conspiracy, not even a political consensus. Its roots are structural. (106)

The silencing of the Haitian Revolution is only a chapter within
a narrative of global domination. It is part of the history of the
West and it is likely to persist, even in attenuated form, as long as the history of the West is not retold in ways that bring forward the perspective of the world. (107)

This happens in theory and the terms that we use:

Terminologies demarcate a field, politically and epistemologically. Names set up a field of power.” “Discovery” and analogous terms ensure that by just mentioning the event one enters a predetermined lexical field of cliches and predictable categories that foreclose a redefinition¬† of the political and intellectual stakes. Europe becomes the center of “what happened.” (115)

It highlights what we must remember in our own work if we are not to reproduce this:

historical authenticity resides not in the fidelity to an alleged past but in an honesty vis-a-vis the present as it re-presents that past. (148)

Authenticity implies a relation with what is known that duplicates the two sides of historicity: it engages us both as actors and narrators. (150)

This is so long and pieces together a sense of his writing about process, while hardly touching the substance of the various histories he reclaims from the silence — as important a project as what I have focused on here. So read it.

For more on race, empire and history…

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