In memory of Michel-Rolph Trouillot
Thus the writer rises out of his national environment and gains universal significance.
- Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism
First reading Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History last year I immediately appreciated the lucidity of Trouillot's prose in his call to hear what is silenced. Trouillot's work follows and expands on the history-from-below work of British Marxist historians like E.P. Thompson and the critical work of the Subaltern Studies group. In fact, Trouillot cites Subaltern Studies historian, Ranajit Guha along with Marx and Hayden White in the first half of his book. Turning to Trouillot's theoretical forebears before considering his excavation of Sans Souci, I think it is important to consider the form of Trouillot's history book. A relatively slim volume, Silencing the Past is not an exhaustive catalog of all the lost voices of the Haitian revolution--the lost humans of history--but rather, a critical intervention in the narrative. Tremendously conscious of the role narrative structure can play in any understanding of history, Trouillot's conversational style and his intercalary personal reflections serve to buttress the principle that permeates throughout his narration, the importance of context. The precariousness of memory, the unreliability of narrators, the curation of archives—oh my!—human history must be understood as a human creation if it is to be 'useful' (here I mean 'useful' in the context of a use-value determined by an ethical program in opposition to the present neoliberal capitalist order, lest you think I mean 'useful' as in 'profitable'). Such is an especially difficult task in many of the realms where history rears its powerful head. In the production of nationalist narratives of triumph and conquest, in the manufacture of racial difference and identity binaries, history can take the form of myth.
In Gillo Pontecorvo's 1969 film Burn!, José Dolores, the indigenous resistance leader, is killed when landed capitalist collaborators usurp the anti-colonial struggle and his rebellion is crushed. I am reminded of Burn! by the story of Sans Souci. Pontecorvo's Dolores is hanged by the state, Trouillot's Souci, the person, is murdered by the rising monarch, the reactionary, the traitor to the revolution. The two Sans Souci ("without concerns" in French) palaces, one in Milot (Henry Christophe's) and the other in Potsdam (Fredrick the Great's), are the intriguing and posthumous reminders of a lost voice. As Trouillot struggles with the 'silenced' archives to resurrect the story of Souci (the person), the Haitian revolution is reimagined. That is to say, the common narrative of colonizer versus colonized begins to collapse as Haitian history is seen for what it is: tragic, hopeful, multifarious, heterogeneous, and unfinished. During the production of Burn!, following concerns that Franco's government would ban the film, the colonial power in the narrative was changed from the Spanish to the Portuguese (despite the fact that the Portuguese never held colonies in the Caribbean), a further reminder that the representation of history is fraught with ideological contestation.
Trouillot's consideration of how the Haitian revolution was silenced in its present moment (and beyond of course, "ghosts that are best left undisturbed") by Western recorders compels me to reflect on our own present moment. It is apparent that if you surrender to the historical unconsciousness that dominates our present society's sense of itself (i.e. "American Exceptionalism") you are absolved from resisting the present; empty, homogenous time renders resistance futile. In the consciousness of the 'mainstream', Occupy Wall Street is a 'lost cause.' Nonetheless, other narratives are written and published on blogs, on Twitter, and by independent presses, including this narrative here. The rebellion continues because there is no mystical power that consolidates and erases with totality, and certainly no cabal or conspiracy (though, undoubtedly, an oligarchy), but there is human agency and hope. Trouillot's book is a powerful indictment of history, but one must not forget the potentially subversive power of history as well. In his narration of the San Domingo Revolution, The Black Jacobins, C.L.R. James did not just write an exquisite history (despite its silences) of Toussaint L'Overture's struggle, of the Caribbean, of modernity and transnationalism, but also a call for global revolution.