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In Memoriam: Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Photo courtesy of University of Chicago

Michel-Rolph Trouillot, 62, world-renowned anthropologist and historian, died July 5, 2012 following long struggles to recuperate from an aneurism suffered in 2002. Born in Haiti on November 26, 1949, Trouillot came to the U.S. in 1969, during the worst years of the Duvalier dictatorship. He received a B.A. in Caribbean History and Culture from CUNY (1978). Trouillot published Ti difé boulé sou Istoua Ayiti in 1977, the first non-fiction book about the Haitian Revolution written in Haitian Kreyòl. In 1978 he entered graduate school to study anthropology at The Johns Hopkins University, advised by Sidney W. Mintz and Richard Price, contributing to The Program in Atlantic History, Culture and Society.

Following fieldwork in Dominica from 1980-82, Trouillot obtained his PhD in 1985. He was assistant professor at Duke University from 1983-1987, where he transformed his doctoral dissertation into Peasants and Capital: Dominica in the World Economy (1988). As the first scholarly study on Dominica, Peasants and Capital intervened in debates on the rise of peasants in post-slavery, post-colonial Caribbean societies. Trouillot demonstrated how a banana-producing peasantry was intimately connected to transnational capital, linking ethnographic particularity to global histories.

Working through concepts of state, nation, and political economy, Trouillot returned to analyzing Haiti. He published Les Racines historiques de l’état duvaliéren (1986) and Haiti, State against Nation: The Origins and Legacy of Duvalierism (1990), ground-breaking efforts to understand Haitian civil society, progressive politics, and the state in the wake of the Duvalier dictatorship. Trouillot also returned to Johns Hopkins as associate professor in 1987, then as Krieger/Eisenhower Professor of Anthropology. In 1992, Trouillot became director of The Program in Atlantic History, Culture and Society. He subsequently transformed the institute into the Institute for Global Studies in Culture, Power, and History (1993-98), becoming its founding director.

Steeped in history, political economy, and philosophy,Trouillot was skeptical of what was called the postmodern turn in anthropology. Trouillot’s “Anthropology and the Savage Slot: The Poetics and Politics of Otherness”—published in Recapturing Anthropology (1991)—became one of his most famous essays. While attentive to discourse and genre, Trouillot would claim that what happened within the “Savage Slot” of anthropology was of less consequence than the slot itself, part of a larger discursive field which pre-dated and shaped anthropology’s emergence as an academic discipline.

This continuing attention to history and power would lead to his most influential book, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995). Widely cited and used by historians and others far beyond anthropology, Silencing the Past is a beautifully-written reflection on differential access to the means of historical production. Trouillot deftly navigates between a positivist insistence on fact-as-truth and the counter-notion of history as just another story, explaining the complexity with which power enters  into the history-making and history-telling processes. Describing the Haitian Revolution as “unthinkable history,” Trouillot reveals a much more complex vision than simplistic accounts of winners writing history.

Trouillot joined the faculty at University of Chicago in 1998, and worked to complete the project he had begun in 1991 with “Anthropology and the Savage Slot.” His collected essays eventually became the chapters of Global Transformation: Anthropology and the Modern World (2003), which calls into question what Trouillot termed “North Atlantic Fictions,” as well as overly cohesive and unduly novel visions of globalization. From his position in “the savage slot” of the Francophone Black Atlantic, Trouillot challenged cults of novelty around the buzzwords of globalization and culture. He reconnected these  to fragmentary processes of the local in the global, exposing how the culture concept, captured in the vectors of power produced by many stakeholders’ contestations, failed to take account of anthropological participation in state projects. In his stirring essay “Adieu, Culture: A New Duty Arises,” Trouillot recounts how anthropology  forced peoples as cultures into holistic representations that could be sandwiched between the front and back covers of authorial-legitimating ethnographies.

With savage slots and cultural authorities multiplying in our post-civil-rights-colorblind-deaf-to-nuance world, Trouillot’s Silencing the Past and Global Transformations will long offer us means to move beyond “North Atlantic Fictions.” Building on his diligent efforts, out there somewhere, we may yet find the means to get control of, as he put it, “our contemporary arrogance, which overplays the uniqueness of our times,” and “may blind us to the dimensions of what happened before we were born” (2003:29).

For his lifetime of engaging these intellectual struggles, the Caribbean Philosophical Association presented Trouillot with the Franz Fanon Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011. (Jason Antrosio, Brakette Williams and Drexel Woodson)

3 Responses

  1. Thank you to the American Anthropological Association for posting this, and thanks to AAA President Leith Mullings and Damon Dozier,Director of Public Affairs, for coordinating and publishing. This was collaboratively written, with special credit to Brackette Williams for orienting the theory and phrasings, and to Drexel Woodson for providing crucial information and edits. Drexel Woodson’s entry on Michel-Rolph Trouillot (2008) in the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences is a valuable resource, and Yarimar Bonilla is compiling a comprehensive Trouillot Bibliography which provides a means to build on Trouillot’s efforts and vision for anthropology.

  2. [...] In Memoriam: Michel-Rolph Trouillot, With savage slots and cultural authorities multiplying in our post-civil-rights-colorblind-deaf-to-nuance world, Trouillot’s Silencing the Past and Global Transformations will long offer us means to move beyond “North Atlantic Fictions.” Building on his diligent efforts, out there somewhere, we may yet find the means to get control of, as he put it, “our contemporary arrogance, which overplays the uniqueness of our times,” and “may blind us to the dimensions of what happened before we were born” (2003:29). Note: Thank you to the American Anthropological Association for posting this, and thanks to AAA President Leith Mullings and Damon Dozier,Director of Public Affairs, for coordinating and publishing. This was collaboratively written, with special credit to Brackette Williams for orienting the theory and phrasings, and to Drexel Woodson for providing crucial information and edits. American Anthropological Association Blog, 16 July 2012 [...]

  3. [...] changed everything. Update 16 July 2012: Here is the American Anthropological Association, In Memoriam: Michel-Rolph Trouillot. This was collaboratively written, with special credit to Brackette Williams for orienting the [...]

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