By Kent Anderson
Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, by Michel-Rolph Trouillot (Boston: Beacon Press). Cloth, $12.50.
THIS IS NOT light summer reading, even for those who prefer non-fiction to fiction. Any work which routinely drops words such as "heuristic," "ontological," "decontextualized," and "etymology" will send readers scurrying to their dictionaries. Despite the vocabulary, however, for serious students of history, Silencing the Past presents a fascinating re-thinking of history and the processes by which it is written. The book's chapters were developed from a series of academic papers presented by the author at several meetings of the International Roundtable of History and Anthropology in the mid- and late-1980s.
Author Michel-Rolph Trouillot is an anthropologist and one of the most renowned of Haitian scholars. He offers the oft-neglected perspective from the Third World about history in general, and how it's crafted from positions of power and hegemony. He then proceeds with specific examples of his thesis from histories (or lack thereof) about the Haitian Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, as well as the meaning of Christopher Columbus and the so-called "Discovery of America."
According to Trouillot, the concern is "not what history is...but how history works." History, to the author, is an ambiguous blend of "mentions" and "silences," whereby some peoples and their times are left out of history. A historian is neither objective nor neutral. Every move or non-move in the construction of history is a reflection of conscious choice, more often than not from a context of Eurocentric domination. The very selection of sources for an archive pre-determine a whole range of "silences." Says Trouillot:
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.
After a complex first chapter in which he presents his terminology and thesis, the author follows with a couple of chapters about the Haitian Revolution which illustrate his point. The material discussed is largely self-evident but, to someone unfamiliar with the Haitian Revolution and its setting against a backdrop of Enlightenment thinking, these chapters may appear fresh and revelatory.
Chapter Four, on the significance of Columbus and the "idea" of the West, is the highlight of Silencing the Past. Here, Trouillot artfully writes of the origins of control over the means of production of history by Europeans. In part, because of the later importance given to "October 12, 1492," an importance never expressed in Columbus' own lifetime, "Contact with the West," says the writer, "is seen as the foundation of historicity of different cultures. Once discovered by Europeans, the Other finally enters the human world." Some of the finest parts of this book are the author's personal musings and reminiscences, which are italicized at the beginning of each chapter. His collection of thoughts at the grave of Vasco de Gama at the start of Chapter Four is superb. It's worth buying the book to read just those few pages.
The final short chapter discusses the historical processes and controversies involved in such diverse contemporary projects as a proposed theme park emphasizing history--Disney's America, in northern Virginia--and the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C.
To appreciate this fine, thoughtful book, the reader doesn't necessarily need to be familiar with the basic tenets of poststructuralist argument nor the thoughts of French philosopher Michel Foucault. It only helps.
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