Review of Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History

Author: Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Publisher: Beacon Press, 2015 (original: 1995)

I understand what Trouillot is trying to say in this book. The idea is important. There is a relationship between power and the history that we receive, and accordingly power has a subtle impact on our belief systems. There’s no doubt about the truth of that. It’s a very simple and profound truth. It is something that I have had to keep in mind constantly when writing my own histories, especially in the Essays on the Classics! series.

The problem is that Trouillot is, like many of his era, a completely incompetent writer. He buries ideas under complex, in many cases meaningless, language. This language is used to obfuscate the fact that he does not have much to say, and it results in overthinking. A simple mind might be blown away by the appearance of intelligence; but a serious thinker cannot take this book seriously. Take, for example, the following quotes:

1) ‘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.’

2) ‘By actors, I mean the bundle of capacities that are specific in time and space in ways that both their existence and their understanding rest fundamentally on historical particulars.’

3) ‘In other words, peoples are not always subjects constantly confronting history as some academics would wish, but the capacity upon which they act to become subjects is always part of their condition. This subjective capacity ensures confusion because it makes human beings doubly historical, or, more properly, fully historical.’

What the hell? The problems with 1) are several-fold. First, what are ‘structural positions’? Dear God. And what in God’s name are ‘actors in constant interface with a context’? Are these historical actors or computers? Moreover, what makes it so special that people are ‘voices aware of their vocality’? The phrasing is annoying (or in Orwell’s words, ‘barbarous’) and I am not sure how this in any way helps me to understand history.

Passages 2 and 3 are nonsense on the surface. They are such complete hogwash as to leave me dumbfounded.

Of particular concern to Trouillot is the Haitian Revolution, which he claims has been silenced by Western historiography. While I am sympathetic to Trouillot as a Haitian, I have a deep distaste for the implication that the West would need to silence the story of Haiti since Haiti has made itself into the basket case of the Western Hemisphere. Haiti has, in essence, silenced itself. This has nothing to do with an abuse of power by Western historians. I do not see how studying anything relating to Haiti can help me live my life in the 21st Century United States; it is of no value to me whatsoever.

Here’s what I know about history: it is a process of conflict and resolution wherein some pieces of data are more important than others. Much of this data is not recorded but must be inferred from what is recorded and from observations in our own lives on the assumption that we, as people, are similar to those about whom we are commenting. By studying history we can come to a greater understanding of our own time and place, we can learn from past failures, we can figure out a variety of possible ways to resolve our own problems. Trouillot’s book teaches me nothing in this light and, as such, deserves the fate he so abhors: silence.

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