Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past

I really enjoyed this book, but I’m finding it very difficult to talk about. It’s deceptively simple, an easy read, and I honestly had trouble reading it critically, because so much of what he said seemed pretty intuitively right.

I don’t want to just write a book report, though.

So I’ll comment on the one thing that I took any real issue with, that engaged me beyond an "amen"– the use of the word "unthinkable."

I think the term is kind of misleading. I don’t think anything is truly unthinkable. The more you look at marginalized opinions, the more you realize that at least certain individuals are pretty uninhibited by what is generally socially bounded as quot;thinkable" or "unthinkable."

And that’s what I think Trouillot was talking about– the limits of acceptable discourse. Chomsky talks about this a lot– how dominant groups and especially media limit acceptable discourse, set the terms of what can and cannot be said– at least within the public sphere, limited by the terms of what arguments will be seen as on the limits, the borders of discourse, and by setting the center.

I simply think the argument that any single idea is "unthinkable" in its time is a dangerous one. It presumes to speak for the entire range of possible thought within  the entire populace. We can’t presume to know that, and it’s dangerous to assume that there weren’t any people capable of thinking that. They may have been labeled crazy, and may have been prohibited from participating in the polite discourse of the public sphere, but that in no way prohibits them from thinking that thing. A clumsier phrase like "inexpressible within the dominant society," while ineloquent, would be more honest and to the point.

Springing from this is a broader argument about the irresponsibility of any historian presuming to speak for the full range of potentialities of the past. But that would be a digression.

And this whole post is really just a nitpicking little point taken with word choice. Overall, though, while I have little I feel the need to say about the book, and will probably incorporate it into my dissertation…

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2 Responses to Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past

  1. CKL says:

    Your comments about this book suggest that you did not understand the major ideas in the text at all. Perhaps try again?

    • Tad says:

      I don’t doubt that I may have. It’s a book outside my major area of research, that likely won’t be included on my orals reading list, however, so I doubt I’ll get back to it soon.

      I’d love it if you could better explain the concept of the “unthinkable” to me, though– I remember being uncomfortable with how it was used in the book, but that was over four years ago.

      Tell me where I went wrong in my understanding of Trouillot’s use of the term, please– maybe you’ll inspire me to give the book a second look!

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