Michel-Rolph Trouillot–brilliant anthropologist, historian, inspiring thinker–passed away July 2012. Devastating loss for anthropology, history, Haiti, all of us. This page is dedicated to Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s bibliography. A separate page links to tributes and memorials.
Of particular interest is In Memoriam Dr. Michel-Rolph Trouillot (1949-2012) by Drexel Woodson and Brackette Williams, which describes what Trouillot was working on:
He could not complete his most ambitious project, “The West.” The project, ranging from the Renaissance to the present, intended to combine a trenchant critique of European colonialism and Euro-American capitalism with a thorough investigation of possibilities for cultural creativity and constructive political-economic development for peoples too often considered the objects of world history or marginal to its main crosscurrents. (2013:156)
Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World, Michel-Rolph Trouillot
At the end of the day, in this age where futures are murky and utopias mere reminders of a lost innocence, we need to fall back on the moral optimism that has been anthropology’s greatest–yet underscored–appeal. But we need to separate that optimism from the naïveté that has been liberalism’s most convenient shield. We need to assume it as a choice–whether we call it moral, philosophical, or aesthetic in the best sense. We need to hang on to it not because we are historically, socially, or politically naïve–indeed, as social scientists we cannot afford such naïveté–but because this is the side of humanity that we choose to prefer, and because this choice is what moved us to anthropology in the first place. We need to assume this optimism because the alternatives are lousy, and because anthropology as a discipline is the best venue through which the West can show an undying faith in the richness and variability of humankind. (139)
Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
Note: For Global Transformations, Trouillot brought together and re-worked material as part of an ongoing project he developed since 1991. Trouillot transformed some of his most famous essays into a book-length assessment of anthropology, and some of the individual chapters appeared elsewhere.
- Chapter 1, “Anthropology and the Savage Slot: The Poetics and Politics of Otherness” was originally published in Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present.
- Parts of Chapter 2, “North Atlantic Fictions: Global Transformations, 1492-1945” originally appeared in Critically Modern: Alternatives, Alterities, Anthropologies.
- Parts of Chapter 3, “A Fragmented Globality” were originally published in Beyond Dichotomies: Histories, Identities, Cultures, and the Challenge of Globalization
- Chapter 4, “The Anthropology of the State in the Age of Globalization: Close Encounters of the Deceptive Kind” was published in Current Anthropology.
- Chapter 5, “Adieu, Culture: A New Duty Arises” was discussed at a Wenner-Gren Conference that led to the volume Anthropology Beyond Culture.
- Chapter 6, “Making Sense: The Fields in which We Work” was written specifically for this book. As assessment and agenda, this book is a challenge to anthropology.
Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, Michel-Rolph Trouillot
We are never as steeped in history as when we pretend not to be, but if we stop pretending we may gain in understanding what we lose in false innocence. Naiveté is often an excuse for those who exercise power. For those upon whom that power is exercised, naiveté is always a mistake.
This book is about history and power. It deals with the many ways in which the production of historical narratives involves the uneven contribution of competing groups and individuals who have unequal access to the means for such production. The forces I will expose are less visible than gunfire, class property, or political crusades. I want to argue they are no less powerful.
I also want to reject both the naive proposition that we are prisoners of our pasts and the pernicious suggestion that history is whatever we make of it. History is the fruit of power, but power itself is never so transparent that its analysis becomes superfluous. The ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots. (xix)
Beacon, 1997. See also Steven Lubar reflecting on Trouillot’s influence in public history (September 2012).
Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Culture on the Edges: Caribbean Creolization in Historical Context. In From the Margins: Historical Anthropology and Its Futures
Creolization is a miracle begging for analysis. Because it first occurred against all odds, between the jaws of brute and absolute power, no explanation seems to do justice to the very wonder that it happened at all. Understandably, the study of Creole cultures and languages has always left room for the analyst’s astonishment. Theories of creolization or of Creole societies, assessments of what it means to speak–or to be–Creole are, in turn, still very much affected by the ideological and political sensibilities of the observers.
It may not be possible or even meritorious to get rid of these sensibilities. Still, the knowledge of creolization can benefit from a more ethnographic approach that takes into account the concrete contexts within which new cultural ideals, practices, and patterns–none of which can be reduced to the other–developed in the Americas.
Duke University Press, 2002.
Abortive Rituals: Historical Apologies in the Global Era, Michel-Rolph Trouillot
Collective historical apologies are increasing worldwide. Navigating ambiguously between moral, historical and legal grounds, these rituals of apology create pastness by connecting existing collectivities to past ones that either perpetuated wrongs or were victimized. This assumed continuity projects onto these collectivities aspects of ahistorical, liberal subjects, who must now not only address historical wrongs in pragmatic terms (such as compensation) but repent on the global stage. However, these apologies are destined to be abortive rituals, whose very conditions of emergence deny the possibility of transformation.
Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies. 2000.
Theorizing a Global Perspective, Michel-Rolph Trouillot
We can make a case for integrating undergraduates in a community of inquiry rather than treating them as consumers of education. That case requires, however, a public defense of intellectual work. It requires the acknowledgment that part of that work is to disturb mental habits, including rules of discourse. It requires the realization that an intellectual has a deeper ethical base and a wider conceptual frame than the most competent academic. Indeed, if successful, we may contribute to the reemergence in American life of public intellectuals outside academia.
The relative isolation of academia has perverse effects. We are often blamed for sins we do not commit. Take race. The outside perception is that universities are at the vanguard of the fight against racism in the U.S. That’s true as far as speech codes and the publicity about Ethnic Studies are concerned. But many recent studies debunk such myths as the relative advantage of minority Ph.D.’s in the academic market. In fact, a comprehensive survey suggests that nearly 91% of university faculty in the United States is white. Professionally, we are less diversified than the insurance industry or the top brass of the U.S. Marine Corps!
Open the Social Sciences: Report of the Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences, Immanuel Wallerstein
Note: Trouillot served on this commission and was a co-author for the report. He seemed particularly interested in re-structuring the social sciences and especially this recommendation:
The compulsory joint appointment of professors. . . . We would envisage a university structure in which everyone was appointed to two departments, the one in which he/she had his degree and a second one in which he/she had shown interest or done relevant work. This would, of course, result in an incredible array of different combinations. Furthermore, in order to make sure that no department erected barriers, we would require that each department have at least 25 percent of its members who did not have a degree in that discipline. (104)
Stanford University Press, 1996.
Haiti’s Nightmare and the Lessons of History, Michel-Rolph Trouillot
Legitimacy of the state, in turn, requires a social contract–that is, the participation of Haiti’s majority in deciding the fate of the country. It requires the recognition by the urban elites and their foreign partners that Haiti remains fundamentally a country of poor peasants. But old habits die hard. The negotiations concerning Aristide’s return all but forgot the fact that Aristide himself was possible in part because of deep political changes in the countryside, rooted in the rural churches and the emerging peasant movement. To emphasize the peasantry as the most repressed actor on the Haitian political stage is not to fall into romanticism. It is, on the contrary, to acknowledge that Haitian democracy will happen in the deep hinterland or it will not exist at all.
NACLA Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the January/February 1994 edition of the NACLA Report. Examining the question of U.S. interventionism in Haiti, the Report’s introduction noted that “history teaches us not to expect the United States to ride in on a white horse and altruistically save the day for democracy.” Now that the U.S. military has deployed some 12,000 soldiers to Haiti in the wake of January’s devastating earthquake, we republish this article in the hopes that it can offer a useful historical context for understanding current events.
North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), 10 February 2010 (reprint), originally 1994
Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Culture, Color, and Politics in Haiti. In Race
In the Haitian case, observers have reached with equal conviction two incompatible conclusions. Based on the distribution of economic and political power among the elites, some have argued that color does not matter in Haiti. Looking at national aggregates, others have condemned color prejudice for the uneven distribution of power across phenotypes. But in the absence of formal practices of discrimination, social scientists have not been able to make the causal links between phenotypes and sociological attributes so easily (perhaps too easily) made in societies such as the United States. At the same time, the Duvalierists effectively used the identity politics based on these aggregates to secure and consolidate power with disastrous consequences for the very majority they claimed to defend.
This essay suggests that we need to focus less on these sociological aggregates and more on the processes of which they are a temporary reflection. Attention to such processes requires a sensitivity to history and ethnography. The complexity of the Haitian case arises from Haitian specifics, but it also hints at the complexities of race and color elsewhere. (171)
Rutgers University Press, 1994.
The Caribbean Region: An Open Frontier in Anthropological Theory, Michel-Rolph Trouillot
Christopher Columbus’s landing in the Caribbean in 1492 provided a nascent Europe with the material and symbolic space necessary to establish its image of the Savage Other. Not surprisingly, it is in the Caribbean islands and in the surrounding mainland that a certain kind of comparative ethnography was born in the 16th century, with the writings of Spanish scholars. But the Caribbean was also where Europe first achieved the systematic destruction of the Other, with the genocide of the Caribs and Arawaks of the Antilles. By the time the Enlightenment returned to the myth of the noble savage, recycling with a vengeance the debates in philosophical anthropology that had marked the Renaissance, most of the Antilles were inhabited by African peoples who had crossed the Atlantic in chains, and their Afro-Creole descendants, also enslaved. Many of these slaves worked on plantations run by profit-conscious Europeans on quite “modern” lines. (20)
Annual Review of Anthropology. 1992.
The Vulgarity of Power (Comments on A.Mbembe), Michel-Rolph Trouillot
Power is always grotesque: Ubu is always vulgar. To parody Montaigne, however high the throne, it’s never higher than the king’s ass. And indeed, from Rabelais to Montaigne, to the noblemen who competed to hold Louis XIV’s chamberpot, to the contemporary British fascination with the sexual frolics of Buckingham, or the U.S . media’s obsessive search for candidates in flagrante delicto, the titillation with the orifices and protuberances of the mighty may be as old as state power itself. . . .
Vulgarity is inherent in power–unless power denies itself. To say this is not to pass moral judgment on the actors but to understand the semiotics at work. From pharaohs to popes, from armadas to stealth bombers, power feeds on exorbitance: a higher horse, a majestic panache, a tiara, a lavish banquet, golden faucets in the bathroom. The imagery of power is excess. Excess, in turn, breeds vulgarity. To be sure, power sometimes attaches a mask onto the vulgarity it generates. If the mask is half successful, power glows, the populace applauds, and vulgarity lies dormant. Yet vulgarity is always there, for power cannot live without its imagery and that imagery begs for exuberance. The king needs a throne, and it is the tension between that need and the meaning of the throne, their actual proximity and fetishized distance, that generate the potential for grotesque that Montaigne picked up. (78)
Public Culture. 1992.
Michel-Rolph Trouillot, The Haitian Revolution and Its Impact on the Americas. In Caribbean Connections: Overview of Regional History
The period from 1776 to 1843 is sometimes called the age of revolutions. It included the North American revolution, the French revolution, and the rise of the European and Latin American nation-states. But few historians have recognized the significance of the revolution in Saint Domingue. Indeed, many textbooks refer to it as a mere “rebellion” or “revolt.”
To understand the history of the Americas we must pay tribute to the achievements of Haiti. The French revolutionaries sought freedom, and the North American colonists sought independence, but the Haitian slaves won both. At a time when slavery went unchallenged elsewhere, and national independence placed control in the hands of rich property owners, Haiti was the first country in the Americas where freedom meant freedom for everyone.
Teaching for Change, 1991.
Haiti: State Against Nation, Michel-Rolph Trouillot
In the euphoria that followed the departure of Haiti’s hated dictator, Jean-Claude Duvalier, most Haitian and foreign analysts treated the regimes of the two Duvaliers, father and son, as a historical nightmare created by the malevolent minds of the leaders and their supporters. Yet the crisis, economic and political, that faces this small Caribbean nation did not begin with the dictatorship, and is far from being solved, despite its departure from the scene. In this fascinating study, Haitian-born Michel-Rolph Trouillot examines the mechanisms through which the Duvaliers ruthlessly won and then held onto power for twenty-nine years.
Trouillot’s theoretical discussion focuses on the contradictory nature of the peripheral state, analyzing its relative autonomy as a manifestation of the growing disjuncture between state and nation. He discusses in detail two key characteristics of such regimes: the need for a rhetoric of “national unity” coupled with unbridled violence. At the same time, he traces the current crisis from its roots in the nineteenth-century marginalization of the peasantry through the U.S. occupation from 1915 to 1934 and into the present. He ends with a discussion of the post-Duvalier period, which, far from seeing the restoration of civilian-led democracy, has been a period of increasing violence and economic decline.
Monthly Review Press, 1990.
Peasants and Capital: Dominica in the World Economy, Michel-Rolph Trouillot
Alternatives usually require a change of perspective. First, we must come to admit that peasantries do not necessarily constitute a liability . . . the case of Dominica strongly suggests that the economic backwardness of those nations is due less to the presence of those peasantries as such than to the conditions of their integration in the capitalist world economy. . . . I believe that a program of self-centered development is within the reach of most peasant nations. . . .
In many ways, my proposal is influenced by traditional peasant strategies. It is a peasant answer to a serious problem; a modest long-term approach; a proposal rooted in the knowledge of a disadvantage. Still, it satisfies me for three important reasons. First, to set the record straight: everything else has failed. And miserably. Second, phased-out programs in self-centered development are immediately applicable at a lower economic and political cost than many other proposed schemes, and can only help a peasant nation in the long term. . . . Finally, and more important for those who see the specter of starvation behind the postcard images that hide the plight of three continents: the children born today in millions of peasant households may not be able to wait for more flamboyant answers. (293, 295, 297-298)
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.
Discourses of rule and the acknowledgment of the peasantry in Dominica, W.I., 1838–1928, Michel-Rolph Trouillot
Designations used by colonizers to describe colonized populations emerge through a multi-layered process that is affected by local social relations, by the colonizers’ sociocultural outlook, by imperial tensions and by the metropolitan context. This paper describes the emergence of such a designation, the century-long process by which cultivators in Dominica came to be called “peasants” by British colonists. Proponents and opponents alike saw in the word a metaphor for the acknowledgment of new relations of production that gave cultivators firmer control of the labor process.
American Ethnologist. 1989.
Motion in the System: Coffee, Color, and Slavery in Eighteenth-Century Saint Domingue, Michel-Rolph Trouillot
This article starts with a very basic fact: between 1767 and 1789, slightly more than two decades, the volume of coffee exports from the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue quadrupled while sugar export volumes rose at a lower rate. . . . This startling development has been largely neglected in analyses of eighteenth-century Saint-Domingue. The image of a complete social and economic disjuncture created by the Haitian Revolution persists, and we are asked to believe that the destruction of the sugar industry during the War of Independence fully explains the transformation of sugar-oriented Saint-Domingue into coffee-oriented Haiti. (331-332)
The path between determinism and voluntarism is often a thin one, but it is in the ambiguity of their relationships, in the minute dysfunctions of the structure, that men and women seize their opportunities and create history, that is, motion in the system. (383)
Review – Fernand Braudel Center for the Study of Economies, Historical Systems, and Civilizations. 1982.
Ti difé boulé sou istoua ayiti, Michel-Rolph Trouillot
The year 1969 was the worst of the Duvaliers’ dictatorship. The Haitian exile community in New York provided a sanctuary where I combined artistic and intellectual pursuits with political activism. That apprenticeship reinforced earlier propensities: a desire to reach an audience not defined by academic membership; a conviction that an intellectual is so much more than a mere academic and the member of multiple overlapping communities. I had absorbed these beliefs growing up within the so-called intellectual elite so closely tied to the state in Haiti. Political activism in New York turned this heredity into conscious choices.
The most lasting product of these choices is my first book, Ti dife boule sou istoua Ayiti, a history of the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804. This was a natural evolution: my father and my uncle both wrote history. In a deeper sense, it was going against class origins and attitudes. Ti dife questions the “great men” tradition of Haitian historiography. More important, it is also the first non-fiction book written in Haitian.
Ti dife boule sou istoua Ayiti published 1977; Comments from Theorizing a Global Perspective, 1996.