How Power Constructs Silences

In Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, Michel-Rolph Trouillot critiques the ways in which history has been constructed by those who tell it. Trouillot writes that his book “is about history and power” and “deals with the many ways in which the production of historical narratives involves the uneven contribution of competing groups and individuals who have unequal access to the means for such production.” (Trouillot xix) There are two competing notions of history: the story of history (“that which is said to have happened”), and reality (“that which happened”). The two commonly accepted ways of dealing with the ambiguity between these two notions are the philosophies of positivism and constructivism. The former “emphasize[s] the distinction between the historical world and what we say or write about it” while the latter” stress[es] the overlap between the process and narratives about that process.” (Trouillot 4) Trouillot eschews both of these philosophies and wants to look at the ways in which history is constructed outside of those dichotomies.

Trouillot notes that humans are active in the production of history in three different capacities: as agents, actors, and subjects. It is the capacity of subjects that is most problematic for Trouillot, who states that “the capacity upon which people act to become subjects is always part of their condition.” This subjective capacity makes humans fully historical by “engag[ing] them simultaneously in the sociohistorical process and in narrative constructions about that process.” (Trouillot 24) Ambiguities aside, Trouillot chooses to embrace the subjective capacity of peoples and instead focuses on the process of historical production.

Trouillot argues that silences enter the process of historical production at four 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).” (Trouillot 26) He asserts that “any historical narrative is a bundle of silences, the result of a unique process.” (Trouillot 27) He defines silence as “an active and transitive process… Mentions and silences are active, dialectical counterparts of which history is the synthesis.” (Trouillot 48)

Throughout the text Trouillot ruminates on what he terms historicity one and historicity two. Historicity one is “the materiality of the sociohistorical process” which results in historicity two, which is “future historical narratives.” (Trouillot 29) These two historicities are the result of power production and the creation of facts and sources by those wielding power and authority. He notes that facts are never meaningless–they become facts only when they are made meaningful–and that facts are not created equal. The creation of facts cannot occur without the simultaneous creation of silences. (Trouillot 29)

His chapters on Sans Souci, the Haitian Revolution, the celebrations of Columbus, and the proposed Disney historic theme park explore these silences further. In the chapter on the Haitian Revolution, in which he explores the relative dearth of historiography on the subject and argues that the Revolution has been ignored by scholars because there was no ontological frame of reference for people to comprehend the event (it was actually unthinkable), he outlines two tropes. These tropes, the formulas of erasure and banalization, have been employed to silence the Haitian Revolution. Taken together, these formulas ignore the sources that discuss the Revolution (erasure) and then trivialize them and empty them of context (banalization). (Trouillot 96) This is just one example of how Trouillot dissects and contextualizes the silences created by human actors and illustrates how the past has been constructed unevenly.

While the entirety of Trouillot’s work is applicable to public history, the final chapter spoke most to the implications silences have on historical work done for the public. While discussing a proposed Disney historic theme park, Trouillot notes that the “value of a historical product cannot be debated without taking into account both the context of its production and the context of its consumption.” (Trouillot 146) A historical source must be evaluated both in terms of how it was made, the circumstances that might have affected its creation, and how it is being viewed years later. In this way, history and the consumption of history by the public should be a dual process: historians need to understand and contextualize how and why this source or product was created as well as help the public to understand why they are viewing the source or product in the way that they are doing so.

One small critique of Silencing the Past is that it is descriptive and not prescriptive. Trouillot does not include a plan of action for moving forward and working to uncover and correct these silences. It is entirely possible that Trouillot’s ambition was only to point out and define the silences and the various ways in which they enter and impact the narrative. Perhaps the best recourse is simply to be aware of these silences and ask what stories are not being told. By doing so, we can be active practitioners in creating a more robust narrative of the past.

Ultimately Trouillot is concerned with power: how it is used and who is wields it, how this power results in the silencing of some histories but not others, and the ways in which power impacts and constructs the dominant narratives of history. Our Western historiography remains incomplete without attempting to recover these silences. As historians and public historians, we must be aware of these silences and work to remedy them while remaining educationally skeptical about our dominant narrative of history. We must also be aware of how these silences impact the public we are seeking to engage.

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