The limitations of the particular historian

Bob Corbett
August 21, 1999

The comments below assume that you've already read my review of Michel-Rolph Trouillot's book. If you have not then these notes make not make too much sense.

In my review of Trouillot's book I stayed mainly within the concerns of his book itself. Here I want to broaden out and make a few more comments about this process of silencing, even "warping" the past. None of what follows is meant in any way to criticize Trouillot. Rather, I'm going beyond his thesis to make a few more comments about the process of doing, writing, reading and understanding history. Actually the comments below are directed most particularly at me and this particular course you are beginning. They are less about the silencing of history than the silencing by the particular historian.

Trouillot is concerned that certain people or phenomena get "silenced" in the creating of history by historians. On his account there are three main roots of this silencing:

  1. The historical events never ever get recorded.
  2. The events may get recorded, but the records get lost or destroyed.
  3. The records continue to exist, but the historian chooses (in some sense at least) not to use certain records in creating the history that he or she creates.

I mainly want to comment on the third process of these three, however I want to make a couple of brief remarks about the first two.

A process of silencing may well already exist in the social structures of the society which cause the events to not be recorded. For example, if peasants living in remote areas of a country are not valued equally with city dwellers, it may be decided that peasant births and deaths, even property records, will not be formally recorded in state records.

A similar process occurs for existing records. I have recently heard that some of the very old existing records from Haiti are actually rotting away and being destroyed by insects and rodents. Supposing that money were made available to save some of these records (people on my mailing list suggested a process of photographing these records with digital cameras), then some decisions would have to be made for priorities. Which records should be saved from destruction and which not, or which first and which later? Such decision would be conscious decisions made on the basis of some evaluation of which records were more important.

The point I want to underscore is that human and societal decisions are often made that impact what things are even recorded and which things are preserved.

However, the most significant issue for history and historians is the process of silencing portions of the past by passing over existing records. I want to reflect a bit on two different aspects of the problem:

  1. Passing over records by historians in general vs the passing over of records by any particular historian.
  2. Passing over records because one doesn't know about them vs passing over records which are known to one.

The first issue concerns the individual historian as opposed to the discipline of history itself. I am not a historian in the professional sense. That is, I don't do original historical research on Haiti, or at least very little. Nor am I a professional historian in that I earn my living as an historian and am designated by colleagues in this way. Yet I "do" history in a derived sense. I read other historians and pull together their views and create from their works a view of my own. This too is history, though at a lower level of scholarship and creativity that the historians who work with primary sources.

As an individual doing this work I am limited in which existing sources I consult in several ways:

Each of these areas poses limitation on me the individual creating history.

However, when we broaden the question to that of the entire discipline, then each of these three limitations are less likely to be evidenced in the finished product. What one historian my not know about or search out another will use. What isn't available to one historian (in any sense of the term) may be available to others. What one ignores another is likely to follow up upon.

Given the existence of sources, and their being known and available in a general sense, then they are likely to enter into the tradition of history as a discipline, even though any given historian may never have consulted or even know about a particular source.

This point enters importantly into the history course you are currently embarking upon. I am presenting materials which I have organized to you. These materials carry all the limitation described above. In particular I am limited mainly to materials in English. I probably have a greater knowledge of what the existing English language sources are than most people, but I have not fully consulted even all the existing materials IN MY OWN LIBRARY!

This particular limitation indicates why it is very important for students of history to be interactive with the instructor (the primary creator of the history you imbibe). If the students are able and willing to consult sources which the instructor (creator or historian) has not, and to bring forward items which have been "silenced" because of this limit, then the history which results will have less of the limits of this silencing than it would otherwise.

However, there is yet another important sense of "silencing" the past which must be faced. One may know of sources, even know what it is they say, but silence them consciously, knowingly. Why would one do this? Not ever reason is necessarily pernicious, but I think ever reason is dangerous to good history.

Consider some of the reasons:

This is the area that I find most troublesome. Suppose I am writing a history of the United States for elementary school. Okay, I have all the limitations mentioned above, and I must produce an oversimplified picture of the nation, and my own historical knowledge may not be that of a creative scholar, thus that knowledge too many be inadequate, oversimplified and a source of silencing.

But more than this I may decide (or even be ORDERED by the publisher or whoever) to write a history in which the U.S. is portrayed overwhelmingly in a morally positive light even though I may have sources that suggest things to the contrary.

This is the sort of silencing that most concerns me. That is, cases where I have a conscious ideological view which moves me to choose certain sources and silence others, and to create a picture which flows from limited data, when I myself am aware of the limits of that data.

Here too, however, there is a complexity. There are again two categories of even this sort of silencing. The case I point out in the paragraphs immediately above this one are cases where the historian is consciously aware that he or she has chosen a particular ideological view and consciously aware of sources which have been silenced.

  1. It is just as likely that the historian has done this BUT IS NOT CONSCIOUSLY AWARE OF HAVING DONE IT -- at least at some levels. Historians, like all people, come to their material with varying degrees of intelligence, inquisitiveness, conscious awareness, skepticism, insight and moral courage, among other things.
  2. Historians may silence the past consciously or unconsciously, but not all unconscious silencing is an innocuous as others. I would argue that people of serious purpose and intent, historians among them, have an obligation to not allow themselves to be consciously unaware of important data to their enterprise, especially when they are in the role of interrupting that information for others.

    Thomas Aquinas made a distinction between two kinds of ignorance:

    Thus upshot of all of this for you folks who are about to venture out with me on an historical quest is: BE CAREFUL.

    Corbett is organizing and presenting a history of Haiti. It is filled with silences of every sort. I would hope that I will earn your trust that I have put forward a very sincere and responsible account of Haitian history. But, I have no illusions that it is fully adequate and I know that there are gaping silences all over the place. Some of the most disturbing silences are the ones I don't even know are there!

    Thus I ask you to approach what I offer with some skepticism and some sense of responsibility to go beyond me, go beyond what I offer. I know this is a lot to ask. Most of you will come to this project because you know very little about Haiti. I've been at this task of learning about Haiti and even reconstructing a history of Haiti for many years. There are, and should be, gaps between us. Just don't be too trusting, too uncritical. Don't be too intellectually lazy to go out beyond where I take you. And lastly, help out your student colleagues by calling attention to things that puzzle you along the way.

    We don't have the time (nor do I have the knowledge) to do a phenomenally detailed history of Haiti. On the other hand, we don't need to settle for just a single voice or single set of choices of sources either. Let's go forward together and hopefully each come away with a much richer view of the country of Haiti and her history, and a much more conscious awareness of the areas of great silence that shroud out picture.

    Bob Corbett


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