Book Summary: Silencing the Past / Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Chapter 1: The Power in the Story

Trouillot mentions how we participate in history both as actors and narrators. For him, history means both ‘what happened’ and ‘what is said to have happened’. The former suggests the sociohistorical process, while the latter speaks about our knowledge of that process. He further mentions how there are various theories of history with different tendencies. Some, by being influenced by positivism, distinguish between the historical process and the narratives about it. Others, lean towards a “constructivist” point of view by stressing the overlap between the historical process and its narratives.

One-sided Historicity

Trouillot claims how professionalization of the (history) discipline is partly premised on believing that the more distant the sociohistorical process from its knowledge, the easier the claim to a “scientific” professionalism. He further explains how the positivist position dominated Western scholarship, and historians were no exception. According to this viewpoint, “power is unproblematic, irrelevant to the construction of the narrative as such. At best, history is a story about power, a story about those who won.” (p.5).

On the other hand, the belief that history is merely another form of fiction is an antique one. And the constructivist view of history is one form of it. “Whereas the positivist view hides the tropes of power behind a naive epistemology, the constructivist one denies the autonomy of the sociohistorical process.” (p.6).

Between Truth and Fiction

Trouillot criticizes Western scholarship by mentioning how non-Western societies are classified as fundamentally non-historical. He states how Western colonizers initially thought that the language of the colonized did not have an intelligent structure because there were no grammar books around. But we know that all languages have grammar. Just like the given example, it is questionable to classify historical narratives as “fiction” because they do not fit the Western way of renewing historical narratives with the findings of new documents.

Trouillot also points at a dilemma the constructivist view of history has. “while it can point to hundreds of stories that illustrate its general claim that narratives are produced, it cannot give a full account of the production of any single narrative” (p.13). And he concludes by saying “it is not that some societies distinguish between fiction and history and others do not. Rather, the difference is in the range of narratives that specific collectives must put to their own tests of historical credibility because of the stakes involved in these narratives” (p.14).

Single-site Historicity

Trouillot states that history as the remembrance of important past experiences is misleading. He calls such an understanding as ‘storage model of memory history‘ (p.14). He further explains that recent research has questioned the vision of individual memory on which it draws. And “the contents of our cabinet are neither fixed nor accessible at will“. Another issue of this model is that our memories may not form a history as the individual may remember the revelation, but not the event itself; just like how a person may remember going to Japan but not what he/she did there. Not only that but the revelation itself may affect the narrator’s future memory of events that happened before. Hence, Trouillot shows how memories as individual history are constructed. He further states that these problems multiply tenfold when we speak about collective past. So, the storage model both assumes that past is remembered and that it is the collective subject that does the remembering.

Trouillot also touches upon how academics and university presses are not the only production of the historical narrative, and how other figures such as religious leaders, political appointees, journalists etc. also contribute to narrating. “Most Europeans and North Americans learn their first history lessons through media that have not been subjected to the standards set by peer reviews, university presses, or doctoral committees. Long before average citizens read the historians who set the standards of the day for colleagues and students, they access history through celebrations, site and museum visits, movies, national holidays, and primary school books” (p.20). However, the fact that history is also produced outside academic circles have been ignored in theories of history.

Theorizing Ambiguity and Tracking Power

Asserting that narratives are always produced in history leads Trouillot to propose two choices. First, he argues that a theory of historical narrative must acknowledge the distinction and the overlap between process and narrative. He divides people involved in history, as a social process, to three capacities: 1) agents, 2) actors, 3) subjects. Second, he states that, in the book, he would also like to focus on how history reveals itself through the production of specific narratives. Focusing on the overlap between the process and the conditions of production of such narratives help us discover the differential exercises of power that makes some narratives possible and silences others (p.25).

Chapter 2: The Three Faces of San Souci

San Souci: The Palace

In this section, Trouillot introduces us to an old palace built in the northern mountains of the Republic of Haiti called San Souci. Built in the early nineteenth century, for a black king called Henry I, the place and the and king have become ambiguous symbols in which the good and the bad intertwine. As any peasant tour guide may explain, many workers were forced to hard labor in building the place which, after its completion, showed what the black race is capable of to the whites. And the King’s ruthless reputation is sometimes overshadowed by his significance as a black king in Haitian history.

When it comes to the name of the palace, San Souci means “carefree” in Haitian. Some say that the name describe the King himself as he sought an easy and comfortable life. While others may recall that the name was extended to the town built around the palace as well. “But few guides are prone to volunteer that ‘San Souci’ was also the name of a man and that this man was killed by Henry Christophe himself” (p.37).

The War Within the War

Trouillot briefly narrates the proclamation of Haitian independence in January 1804. He introduces us significant figures such as Toussant Louverture, who both governed in the name of France, fought in the name of Saint-Domingue and later transformed the slave insurgency to a revolutionary movement. One key figure in his army was General Henry Christophe (who later became King Henry I). He later proceeds to describe series of events which he calls “war within the war”, because such revolutionaries did not only fight against the French expeditionary forces, but at crucial moments of war, “black officers also turned against their own” (p.40).

Sans Souci: The Man

In this part, Trouillot introduces us to a Bossale slave, called Colonel Jean-Baptiste Sans Souci, who played a significant role in the Haitan Revolution. “After Toussaint Louverture unified the revolutionary forces, Sans Souci maintained his influence and become on of Henry Christophe’s immideate subalterns” (p.41). After inner struggles within the revolutionary forces (with the aid of French), San Souci eventually refused to serve under men like Christophe, whom he considered as a traitor. And it is in this war withing the war that led Christophe to kill Sans Souci. Trouillot further writes about how even though Sans Souci’s existence and death are mentioned in most written accounts of Haitian war of independence, few writers have commented on the obvious: that it is the name of the palace (which he had mentioned before).

Sans Souci Revisited

In this important section of the book, having given a historical narrative of the palace, Christophe, Louverture, and Sans Souci, Trouillot illustrates how out of the three possible faces of Sans Souci, one of them disappeared from the narrative today, that is the person that is killed. “In short, because historical traces are inherently uneven, sources are not created equal” (p.47). “Almost every mention of Sans Souci, the palace, the very resilience of the physical structure itself, effectively silences Sans Souci, the man, his political goals, his military genius” (p.48).

Trouillot further mentions about the production of history and how it is intertwined with various power vectors that silence and promote certain historical actors and narrators of history. To further elaborate, “inequalities experienced by the actors lead to uneven historical power in the inscription of traces… Sources are thus instances of inclusion, the other face of which is, of course, what is excluded” (p.48). In other words, something is always left out while something else is recorded as a fact.

Later, Trouillot provides a distinction between chronicler and narrator. He describes chronicler as dealing with discrete chunks of time united by his record keeping, as describing events only he witnessed, as not knowing the end of the story. And he likens the speech of a chronicler to that of a sports game commentator. On the other hand, he describes narrator as dealing with continuity provided by the life span of the entity described, as telling stories from what he saw and learned to be true from others, as knowing the full story. And he likens the speech of a narrator to that of a storyteller. Later, the author describes how silences are inherent in the chronicle, which he believes is inevitable. Because if the sports commentator were to describe every small detail, from the bench players to the spectators, we would not understand anything. “What is true of play-by-play accounts is no less true of notary records, business accounts, population censuses, parish registers” (p.51). Hence, “silences are inherent in the creation of sources, the first moment of historical production“.

The second moment of historical production lies in the making of archives and documents; but the kind of power used in the creation of sources is not necessarily the same that allows the creation of archives. “Archives set up both the substantive and formal elements of the narrative. They are institutionalized sites of mediation between the sociohistorical process and the narrative about that process” (p.52).

Silences in the Historical Narrative

The third moment of the process of mentions and silences is when events that become facts are retrieved. “Some facts are recalled more than others; some strings of facts are recalled with more empirical richness than others even in play-by-play accounts” (p.54). Trouillot then mentions how historical narratives are premised on the distribution of archival power and that in the case of Third World countries like Haiti, previous understandings have been profoundly shaped by Western conventions and procedures (p.55). First, Haitian historiography implies formal access to a Western (French) language and culture which makes it inaccessible to most Haitians that are illiterate and uni-lingual speaks of Haitian. Second, divisions between guild historians and amateurs is premised on a Western-dominated practice.

Historians build their narrative on the shoulders of previous ones” (p.56). Trouillot provides his previous section of writing as an example. He describes how he assumed both a certain way of reading history and the reader’s greater knowledge of French than of Haitian history, and so on.

Silences Within Silences

In this section, Trouillot writes about the fourth and final step of historical production, that is when retrospective significance itself is produced. “Retrospective significance can be created by the actors themselves, as a past within their past, or as a future within their present. Henry I killed Sans Souci twice: first, literally during their last meeting; second, symbolically , by naming his most famous palace Sans Souci” (p.59) Continuing this section, Trouillot brings up different way Henry I took part in retrospective significance regarding creation of a narrative.

The Defeat of the Barbarians

“For Haitians, the silencing is elsewhere…” (p.66). In this final section of the chapter, Trouillot criticizes Haitian historians who play by the rules of the Western guild. That is they sought irrefutable evidence, but if proven (regarding Sans Souci), this “fact” itself was not much relevant to the overall picture.

Chapter 3: An Unthinkable History

Unthinking a Chimera

Trouillot quotes a French colonist, called La Barre, “The Negroes are very obedient and always will be. We sleep with doors and windows wide open. Freedom for Negroes is a chimera” (p.72). Then, he proceeds to cite Historian Roger Dorsinville who believes that these words were reduced to insignificance after the slave insurrection. However, Trouillot is not so sure. “When reality does not coincide with deeply held beliefs, human beings tend to phrase interpretations that force reality within the scope of these beliefs. They devise formulas to repress the unthinkable and to bring it back within the realm of accepted discourse” (p.72).

A Certain Idea of Man

After the process of Europe becoming ‘the West’, during the Renaissance, a number of philosophical questions and answers were brought up by politicians, theologians, artists, and soldiers. “What is Beauty? What is Order? What is the State? But also and above all: What is Man?” (p.75). However, the philosophers that discussed this question faced a dilemma as Europe was in its colonization era. “Men (Europeans) were conquering, killing, dominating, and enslaving other beings thought to be equally human, if only by some” (p.75). The more Europeans conquered and enslaved other men, the more European philosophers wrote and talked about Man. “Most important for our purposes is that all these schemes recognized degrees of humanity. Whether these connecting ladders ranked chunks of humanity on ontological, ethical, political, scientific, cultural, or simply pragmatic grounds, the fact is that all assumed and reasserted that, ultimately, some humans were more so than others” (p.76). Hence, hierarchies of humaneness were created.

Although European philosophers wrote and talked about humanity, “Jacques Thibau doubts that contemporaries found a dichotomy between the France of the slavers and that of the philosophers” (p.79). Trouillot adds to the point by pointing at Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire, who was notably racist and opposed slavery on practical rather than moral grounds.

After further illustrating his points and critique regarding Europe’s search of Man, Trouillot raises the question whether we can judge their actions with the ideological views (like politically correctness) that we now take for granted. “Lest accusations of political correctness trivialize the issue, let me emphasize that I am not suggesting that 18th 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” (p.82). Later, he ends by saying: “The unthinkable is that which one cannot conceive within the range of possible alternatives, that which perverts all answers because it defies the terms under which the questions were phrased” (p.82).

Prelude to the News: The Failure of Categories

In this section, Trouillot writes about the acknowledgement of the resistance of slaves in Saint-Domingue. “On the one hand, resistance and defiance did not exist, since to acknowledge them was to acknowledge the humanity of the enslaved. On the other hand, since resistance occured, it was dealt with quite severely, within or around the plantations. 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” (p.83).

Trouillot then proceeds to criticize the way publications by and for planters could not fully deny resistance but tried to provide reassuring certitudes by trivializing all its manifestations. “Resistance did not exist as a global phenomenon. Rather, each case of unmistakable defiance, each possible instance of resistance was treated separately and drained of its political content” (p.83). Hence, “the rebellious slave in turn is a maladjusted Negro, a mutinous adolescent who eats dirt until he dies, an infanticidal mother, a deviant. To the extent that sins of humanity are acknowledged they are acknowledged only evidence of a pathology” (p.84).

Dealing with the Unthinkable: The Failures of Narration

Trouillot examines how the French could not believe in the possibility of a slave revolt. He presents a speech delivered to the French assembly, which outlines the reasons why news of slave revolt in Saint-Domingue had to be false. “a) anyone who knew the blacks had to realize that it was simply impossible for fifty thousand of them to get together so fast and act in concert; b) slaves could not conceive of rebellion on their own, and mulattoes and whites were not so insane as to incite them to full-scale violence; c) even if the slaves had rebelled in such huge numbers, the superior French troops would have defeated them” (p.91).

Erasure and Trivialization: Silences in World History

Trouillot introduces two families of tropes when it comes to the treatment of the Haitian Revolution in written history, outside Haiti. The first kind of tropes, according to him, are formulas that tend to erase directly the fact of a revolution. “I call them, for short, formulas of erasure” (p.96). “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 them formulas of banalization” (p.96). When it comes to formulas of erasure, Trouillot explains how many historians, including the French, avoid using the word “revolution” but use other words such as “revolt”; or they credit the disease in given rise to the situation, instead of a collective will of the black people to fight for their freedom. And when it comes to formulas of banalization, Trouillot presents some structural similarities in global silences. That is, trying to bring up narratives such as “The Germans did not really build gas chambers; slavery also happened to non-blacks” (p.97) aim to trivialize the matter, yet silencing its significance.

Chapter 4: Good Day, Columbus

October 12, 1492

In this section, Trouillot critically focuses on the historical event, “The Discovery of America by Columbus”. First, he mentions how pinning down this event to one specific date, that is October 12, 1492, is a way of creating a historical “fact”, and makes it suitable for consumption. “It accommodates travel agents, airlines, politicians, the media, or the states who sell it in the prepackaged forms by which the public has come to expect history to present itself for immediate consumption” (p.114).

Then, Trouillot proceeds into questioning the way the event is labeled. That is, the way event is called a “discovery” but not other alternatives like “conquest”. “Names set up a field of power… ‘Discovery’ and analogues 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’. Whatever else may have happened to other peoples in that process is already reduced to a natural fact: they were discovered” (p.115).

Then, Trouillot writes about how commemorations is also a process in creating a historical “fact”. “Commemorations sanitize further the messy history lived by the actors. They contribute to the continuous myth-taking process that gives history its more definite shapes: they help to create, modify, or sanction the public meetings attached to historical events deemed worthy of mass celebration” (p.116).

Finally, Trouillot provides other historical events which also happened on the same date, October 12, and illustrates how among them only one is celebrated annually. “Celebrations straddle the two sides of historicity. They impose a silence upon the events that they ignore, and they fill that silence with narratives of power about the event they celebrate” (p.118).

An Anniversary in the Making

Trouillot examines the process of Columbus being a celebrated figure, although October 12 was never marked as a special date during Columbus’ lifetime. He writes how Columbus was used as an icon in creating ethnic or religious identity for states. He writes how Latin Americans mostly approached Columbus with ambivalence because they did not completely alienate native cultures from their myths of origin. In the United States, in contrast, the situation was like the opposite. Columbus both played a role in keeping ties to ‘European origins’ and to ‘Catholic devotion’.

The Castilian and the Yankee

In this section, Trouillot dives deeper into how Columbus becomes a means for forging various identities. He examines the Columbus Day celebrations worldwide and what it means for the place that it is celebrated in, such as Spain, who after struggling to gain political power uses the Columbus identity in reconstructing nationalism towards the end of the nineteenth century. “…Columbus wears a different hat in each of these places” (p.136).

October 12, Revisited

In this final section of this chapter, Tourillot mentions again the 1992 quincentennial of ‘The Discovery’. “The 1992 quincentennial benefited from a material and ideological appratus that was simply unthinkable at the time of the Chicago fair. With worldwide changes in the nature of ‘the public,’ with the sophistication of communication techniques, public history is often now a tale of sheer power clothed in electronic innocence and lexical clarity” (p.136). “A flag, a memorial, a museum exhibit, or an anniversary can become the center of living theater with historical pretensions and worldwide audiences” (p.137).

Trouillot then proceeds into writing about how collective identity politics shape the image of Columbus that is presented to the public, and he further reflects on the ambiguities of narration of history. “The inability to step out of history in order to write or rewrite it applies to all actors and narrators. That some ambiguities are more obvious in Arizona and Belem than in Chicago, Madrid, or Paris has much more to do with unequal control over the means of historical production than with the inherent objectivity of a particular group of narrators” (p.140).

Chapter 5: The Presence in the Past

Slavery in Disneyland

In this chapter, after having mentioned the power games that lie under the commemoration of Columbus all over the world, Trouillot touches on a different topic. He examines how Disney wanted to build an amusement park in northern Virginia and intended to emphasize the historical themes of the park. Afro-American slavery was one of them. He then quotes William Styron, a novelist, who criticized Disney by saying that Disney’s plans would “only mock a theme as momentous as slavery… because slavery cannot be represented in exhibits” (p.143). Trouillot further writes that Styron’s objections were based on the fact that Disney’s primary public was to be white middle-class Americans. “They are the ones most likely to have plunged into the fake agony of Disney’s virtual reality” (p.145). Trouillot believes that Styron is right in suggesting that the exhibit would have misrepresented the experiences of both blacks and whites.

Then, Trouillot focuses on how the past is isolated from the present, when empirical facts and ‘authenticity’ are sought in trying to raise public awareness of tragic historical events. “These relations debunk the myth of The Past as a fixed reality and the related view of knowledge as a fixed content. They also force us to look at the purpose of this knowledge. What is scary about tourist attractions representing slavery in the United States is not so much that the tourists would learn the wrong facts, but rather, that touristic representations of the facts would induce among them the wrong reaction. Obviously, the ‘wrong’ has different meanings here. It denotes inaccuracy in the first case. In the second, it suggests an immoral or, at least, unauthentic behavior” (p.148). Trouillot further suggests that, by quoting Cascardi, “authenticity is not a type or degree of knowledge, but a relationship to what is known” (p.148). “… What is obscene in that image is not a relation to The Past, but the dishonesty of that relation as it would happen in our present. The trivialization of slavery- and of the suffering it caused- inheres that present, which includes both racism and representations of slavery. Ironically, a visit by a Klan member actively promoting racial inequality would have stood a better chance of authenticity. At least, it would not have trivialized slavery” (p.148). Trouillot also mentions how the focus on The Past often diverts us from the present injustices for which previous generations only set the foundations.

Trouillot’s idea of ‘authenticity’ can be summed up in his own words: “… authenticity cannot reside in attitudes toward a discrete past kept alive through narratives. Whether it invokes, claims, or rejects The Past, authenticity obtains only in regard to current practices that engage us as witnesses, actors, and commentators- including practices of historical narration. That the foundations of such practices were set by our precursors with the added value of their respective power is an inherent effect of the historicity of the human condition: none of us starts with a clean slate…. Thus, even in relation to The Past our authenticity resides in the struggles of our present. Only in that present can we be true or false to the past we choose to acknowledge” (p.151).

Trouillot, M. (1995). Silencing the past : Power and the production of history. Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press.

3 thoughts on “Book Summary: Silencing the Past / Michel-Rolph Trouillot

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  1. Thank you so much for writing this! I needed this summary last-minute because I didn’t have time to read the book…you’re truly a godsend!


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