Sunday, March 26, 2023

Review of Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

This book review was written by Eugene Kernes   

Book can be found in: 
Genre = History
Book Club Event = Book List (11/11/2023)

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“I also want to reject both the naïve 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.” – Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Preface, Page xxiii

“As sources fill the historical landscape with their facts, they reduce the room available to other facts.  Even if we imagine the landscape to be forever expandable, the rule of interdependence implies that new facts cannot emerge in a vacuum.  They will have to gain their right to existence in light of the field constituted by previously created facts.  They may dethrone some of these facts, erase or qualify others.  The point remains that sources occupy competing positions in the historical landscape.  These positions themselves are inherently imbued with meaning since facts cannot be created meaningless.  Even as an ideal recorded, the chronicler necessarily produces meaning and, therefore, silences.” – Michel-Rolph Trouillot, The Three Faces of Sans Souci, Page 49-50

“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.” – Michel-Rolph Trouillot, An Unthinkable History, Page 82



There is power in the production of history.  History is produced by competing groups and individuals.  Competitors with uneven contribution.  Competitors who do not have equal access to the production of history.  While some competitors leave many traces to be left to be used as sources, others are silent for their lack of traces left behind.  A seeming consensus hides a history of conflict.  A conflict between past and present narrators.  Humans are both agents in history, and history’s narrators.  History incorporates what happened and the process about what happened. 

Power shapes the narrative.  An integral part and cannot be removed from the narrative.  How history happened cannot be separated from who wields power.  Power to include or exclude information.  Power to share information, or to silence information.  What is referenced and the silences of what is not, are determined within the production of history.  From the creation of the sources, to the assembly of the information, to the retrieval of information in the process of making a narrative, to finding the retrospective significance.  Silences are inherent in the historical record.  For some events and experiences leave behind sources, while others do not.  Even within sources, the narrator chooses which to use and exclude.  The process of historical production is shown using the Haitian Revolution, slavery, and Cristopher Columbus.


Positivist or Constructivist?

There are two major schools of thought on history which are the positivist, and constructivists.  Those who are influenced by positivism, believe in the separation between historic facts and how those facts are narrated.  Those who are influenced by constructivism, do not separate facts and the narration.  Constructivist see a historical narrative as a fiction among others.  Constructivists do not consider the sociohistorical process.

There is more to the production of history than the dichotomy between positivism and constructivism.  The author rejects claims about people being prisoners of the past, and rejects claims about purely socially constructed history. 

Historical narrative needs to take account of the distinction and overlap between process and narrative.  To embrace the ambiguity.  The production of history occurs within context.


How Is Historical Fact Made?

There is a difference between a fake and a fiction.  Fabricating sources and evidence produces a fake, as they violate the claims to historical truth.  Rules of history that is different in time and place.  History is not just fiction, for history leaves behind material evidence that limit the range of narratives, while also setting the boundaries for future historical narratives.

Facts always have meaning, for they only become facts because they mattered, no matter how minimally.  Facts are not created equal.  Facts are interdependent with other facts.  Each fact has meaning in relation to other facts.  Facts compete with other facts for room, earning the right to exist among other facts.  Some facts will be requalified with new facts.  New knowledge must acknowledge and contradict previous understandings. 

Silences are born contemporaneously with the found traces.  While some events are noted immediately, other are not.  Some facts leave behind a physical or psychological impact, other do not.  Unequal experiences by the agents of history, leads to uneven historical power to inscribe their traces.  Sources build on these traces, which privilege some over others.  Sources choose what to include and exclude.  Sources imply choices.  Some facts make it to history, from others there is only silence.  Silences are inherent in history, for historic facts always have missing parts.  Some parts are recorded, while others are left out. 

Assembling archives is not a passive act.  They prepare facts for historical intelligibility.  They set the rules for credibility and interdependence.  Provide the choices of which stories have relevance, which stories have significance.  Classifications and terminologies matter.  Depending on the lexicon used, determines the categories an event goes into. 


The Unthinkable:

There are events that are unthinkable.  Events for which alternatives cannot be conceived.  Unthinkable events that defy how the questions are phrased.  When the unthinkable events do happen, the event is recast to fit a reality of possibilities. 



The examples used showcase the production of history are limited.  They were not meant to and do not provide a comprehensive understanding of the events.

Questions to Consider while Reading the Book

•What is the raison d’etre of the book?  For what purpose did the author write the book?  Why do people read this book?
•What are some limitations of the book?
•To whom would you suggest this book?
•How is history produced?
•How do facts come to be?
•Why are there silences?
•What power does history have?
•What are unthinkable events?
•How do positivist and constructivist approach history?
•How does the author approach history?
•What is the difference between a fake and fiction?
•How do archives and lexicon choice influence history?
•What do you know of slavery?  What information do you reject?
•Who is Sans Souci? 
•What did Christopher Columbus do?

Book Details
Foreword Author: Hazel V. Carby
Publisher:             Beacon Press [Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations]
Edition ISBN:      9780807080535
Pages to read:       162
Publication:          2015
1st Edition:           1995
Format:                 Paperback 

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    5
Content          5
Overall          5