restricted access The Futures of Michel-Rolph Trouillot: In Memoriam
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The Futures of Michel-Rolph Trouillot
In Memoriam

Gatekeeping has never been successful in the Caribbean.

—Michel-Rolph Trouillot

When in the mid-1970s Richard Price and Sidney Mintz left Yale University and set about to shape a distinctive Caribbeanist anthropology at Johns Hopkins University, they did so with a sharply critical self-consciousness of the historical peculiarities of the Caribbean as it existed in the anthropological imagination.1 Oddly, central though the Caribbean was to the modern identity of the discipline, at least in the United States (not to mention its centrality to the very making of the modern world itself), it seemed to occupy an ambiguous place in anthropological inquiry, beyond the gatekeeping handles of its canonical idioms of classification: neither fish nor fowl, nor good red herring. Mintz and Price had already to some extent established an agenda for re-visioning our understanding of the Caribbean, sketched in their pathbreaking essay An Anthropological Approach to the Afro-American Past: A Caribbean Perspective, first presented in 1973 as a research paper at a conference on "creole societies" and subsequently published as a book in 1976.2 As is well-enough known, the essay sought, among other things, to displace the prevailing Herskovitsian paradigm, with its focus on African survivals and [End Page vii] retentions in the Americas, and to offer an approach in which "culture history" was the constitutive dynamic in the making of the Afro-Caribbean. For Mintz and Price, the Caribbean as we know it was always already historical, paradigmatically so. To begin with, the Caribbean was a fundamentally historical geopolitical space, inasmuch as it was brought into being by various rival early-modern colonial powers and maintained as a peripheral region by the powers of a globalizing capitalist order. And furthermore, the Caribbean was a fundamentally historical social-cultural space, inasmuch as the processes through which peoples were thrown together asymmetrically within the socializing matrix of the slave plantation shaped over time the terms of their self-, familial-, and community-formation, as well as the ground of their individual and collective creativity.3 And, at least for Mintz, Marxism served as an indispensable theoretical orientation for imagining a properly historical anthropology of the Caribbean.4

Not surprisingly, a small but not insignificant number of Caribbean students were drawn to this vision of the anthropological study of the region they came from. Its historical and indeed political sensibility (not to mention its self-conscious attunement to local intellectual discourses) seemed to render anthropology a disciplinary strategy both of sensitive appreciation and critical interrogation. But these students not only were exposed to a distinctive paradigm of cultural-historical understanding; they were urged to adopt a particular hermeneutic principle of ethnographic inquiry, namely, that if they were going to study in the Caribbean region they should work on a territory not only other than the one they came from but also other precisely in terms of the linguistic and intellectual traditions inherited from colonialism. Mintz in particular has always criticized the peculiar insularity of Caribbean intellectual traditions and pressed scholars from the region to reach beyond the crippling balkanization to which the Caribbean has been subjected historically. It is not hard to see the virtue of this principle of ethnographic hermeneutics: it discloses both an epistemological as well as an ethical disposition, a way of knowing as well as a way of being. Clearly, from this perspective, for Caribbean students Caribbean anthropology was not to be merely a means of accumulating cultural-historical information but a mode of expanding their horizon of hermeneutic understanding.

One of the Caribbean students to receive his PhD from the Hopkins anthropology program, perhaps the most renowned of them, was Michel-Rolph Trouillot, whose passing in July 2012 has cast a bleak pall over Caribbean studies. A generative mind, an inspiring teacher, a compelling writer, Trouillot (who was himself from a distinguished intellectual and literary Haitian family) would give his own distinctive inflection and edge to the thematic and theoretical and hermeneutic preoccupations that animated his teachers, Mintz most directly. In many ways Trouillot was the most profound exemplar of the program's substantive and interpretive [End Page viii] project—and...