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Silencing the Past

From Silencing the Past – Power and the Production of History, by Michel-Rolph Trouillot, p 25:
“For what history is changes with time and place or, better said, history reveals itself only through the production of specific narratives. What matters most are the process and conditions of production of such narratives. Only a focus on that process can uncover the ways in which the two sides of historicity intertwine in a particular context. Only through that overlap can we discover the differential exercise of power that makes some narratives possible and silences others.”

Trouillot is describing a theory of history much like the philosophy of art. In art, one learns that the negative spaces have value; what is left out describes the ultimate image as much as the impressions that the artist leaves. Trouillot is arguing that the same holds for historical silences, and that if we can understand the reasons such silences show up in a particular historical narrative, we’ll gain insight into the complete history. Indeed, he seems to be saying that one cannot consider history without considering the silences also.

On page 26, Trouillot writes:
“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).”

Using the example of a broadcast of a baseball game, Trouillot points out that an audience relies on a sportscaster to leave certain things out of the description. Vin Scully, for instance, wouldn’t generally describe for us the actions of the fans in the stands, the inactive players on the field, the players in the bullpen or dugout, and so on. On p 50 Trouillot writes, “If the account was indeed fully comprehensive of all facts, it would be incomprehensible. Further, the selection of what matters, the dual creation of mentions and silences, is premised on the understanding of the rules of the game by broadcaster and audience alike.”

Without silence there is no meaning. For human beings to make sense of our world, we must leave parts of it out.

We do this elegantly well. Human beings are living filters. We constantly decide what is or is not important, what we pay attention to and what we ignore. We could not survive without this skill. Our brains are not built to process every bit of information at a conscious level.

In fact, our bodies are physical filters. Our eyes and ears only experience a limited range of the available spectrum, the range that evolution has deemed most useful for our species. We do not have unlimited physical capacities. Speed, range of motion, temperature tolerance, memory… any number of limits define the outer edges of who we are and what we are capable of. In fact, we celebrate and revere the rare humans who can push the boundaries of these limits to the extremes.

When I put on a pair of colored lenses, my view of the world changes. At first I notice the change, but in time I adapt and accept the view as normal. To experience a “true” view of the world, I must either mentally correct for the tint of the lens, or physically remove it. Trouillot seems to say we need to do the same when we read history. He writes, “...any historical narrative is a particular bundle of silences, the result of a unique process, and the operation required to deconstruct these silences will vary accordingly.”