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  • Remembering Trouillot1
  • Colin Dayan

We are living in a time of extinctions: a systematic disposal of creatures deemed threatening or unfit. How easy it is for us, out of fear and dogma, to demonize others, to deny them a common humanity, to do unspeakable things to them. In a disenchanted world, daily cruelty and casual violence accompany the call for order, the need for security. The management of what is deemed refuse draws distinctions between the free and the bound, the familiar and the strange, the privileged and the stigmatized. And this ongoing cultivation of human waste material asks us to recast interpretation itself. How can we shed the mantle of civility, reasonable consensus, and rationality just long enough to question the claims of decency? Does academic caution reduce thought—no matter how, or especially if expertly rendered—to a privileged experience that nullifies what remains alive and unsettling outside our conventions and characterizations?

Trouillot demanded answers to these questions. He distrusted the sanctified sphere of academic theorizing. He saw the experience of racism concealed by the remedy of culture. He knew the danger of liberal versions of pluralism that evaded history. In this time of terror, in our complicity with “kill lists,” drone strikes, and mass incarceration, what are the choices offered us as scholars, writers, and teachers? How should we address the rationales and rituals of dehumanization that thrive under cover of necessity in this our twenty-first century? A cure for all kinds of threats, reasonableness has long been a presupposition for extending enslavement, disability, and torture. But this rationality—like the theory that accompanies it—is tied to figurative power, and its metaphors can at any moment become more insistent and literal. There was no more lethal metaphoric terrain for Trouillot than the project of culture and the contextualization it disallowed. [End Page 12]

Trouillot was a transformative presence in multiple fields—anthropology, history, political economy, philosophy, and literature. He redefined the meaning of scholarship and questioned the long arm of power. I recall his sustained assault on the celebrated uniqueness of Haiti; his hope long ago that the future of Haiti would be decided in the countryside; and the words, more true today than ever, that described Haiti as “the earliest testing ground for neo-colonialism.”

I met Trouillot in March 1987, at the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian. I had just returned from a year’s sabbatical in Jamaica and Haiti where I had gone to write a book called History and Poetic Language in the Caribbean. With his distinctive irony and warmth, Rolph repeated the big words—history and language—and asked whether I thought the terms of the project might not be a bit “too fashionable” to do justice to the complexities of the region. He was everything that I did not yet have words for.

It was a time of raging generalities in the academy, when folks of all colors, backgrounds, and tastes could safely jump on the bandwagon of “multiculturalism” and “diversity.” You could, if you chose, be freed from the dual traps of the archive and the streets, the dilemma of history and politics. As national and racist borders became harsher in daily life, the multicultural rhetoric of the academy (like the multinational corporations that were refueled and consolidated during these years) became ever more penetrating. As Trouillot famously put it nearly ten years later in Silencing the Past, “all hyphens are not equal in the pot that does not melt.” By the time I met him again just over a year after our initial encounter, at the Abington Friends School in Jenkinstown, Pennsylvania, I recognized how acute his concern with terminology was. Our dangerous intoxication with generalities had allowed us to forget the history and politics that such words masked.

We were asked to speak about the Caribbean. As I heard him speak that first time in Pennsylvania, I understood how grave were the effects of such well-meaning abstractions, how such benign theoretical maneuvers appropriated or even displaced the subjects represented. Academics from the metropolitan center were busy reinventing a cultural narrative that subsumed the very places and peoples they claimed to be speaking about...


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