Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 2015 ). In his elegant meditation on history, power, and perception, Silencing the Past, Michel-Rolph Trouillot "deals with the many ways in which the production of historical narratives involves the uneven contribution of competing groups and individuals who have access to the means for such production" (xxiii). As such, he wants to reject both the naive proposition that we are prisoners of our own pasts and the pernicious suggestion that history is whatever we make of it. History," he argues, "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. (xxiii).
As stark as his own preface sounds, Silencing the Past is a deeply personal and aphoristic book that is anchored in Trouillot's origins in the small island nation of Haiti yet expansive in its intellectual sweep, touching on the Haitian Revolution, the French Revolution, slavery in the Americas, the Holocaust, imperial conquest, new-world colonialism, and the cultural history of Christopher Columbus as myth, symbol, and commodity. Trouillot's theoretical concerns have to do with how history works vis-a-vis narrative, silences, power, subjectivity, and individual agency. There is an inherent ambiguity in the historical process, he suggests, because human beings are simultaneously engaged in "the sociohistorical process and the narrative constructions about that process" (24). For Trouillot, embracing the two sides of history allows subjects to be rendered as fully historical--or with complexity, agency, and dimensionality.
In addition to being a lucid, witty, and thought-provoking book, Silencing the Past suggests an approach and method for incorporating silence into historical analysis, and, in his hands, silence becomes a powerful conceptual tool. For Troulliot, silences in history tend to form a particular pattern or process: "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). Later, Troulliot specifies the element of power in the making of historical meaning or truth:
Silences are inherent in history because any single event enters history with some of its constituting parts missing. Something is always left out while something is recorded. There is no perfect closure of any event, however one chooses to define the boundaries of that event. Thus whatever becomes fact does so with its own inborn absences, specific to its production. In other words, the very mechanisms that make any historical recording possible also ensure that facts are not created equal. They reflect differential control of the means of historical production at the very first engraving that transforms an event into a fact. SIlences of this kind show the limits of strategies that imply a more accurate reconstitution of the past, and therefore the production of a "better" history, simply by an enlargement of the empirical base. (49)
In a sense, Trouillot is arguing against neo-empiricism and for a more nuanced rhetorical/philosophical understanding of historical production and reception, a dialectic across the millennia. I hasten to add that Trouillot's theorizing is always grounded and serves to sharpen his observations and extend his wisdom. Silencing the Past answers the question, What is history? From this perspective, history is about narrative, differential power, contingency, identity, silences, and intellectual commitment.