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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. Continue reading

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