In his 1995 publication Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, anthropologist and historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot argues that we cannot fully understand “the facts of history” without first acknowledging the process by which a piece of information becomes a historical fact. That process, argues Trouillot, is simultaneously shaped by what evidence the historian considers to be relevant to the historical narrative and what evidence the historian believes should be omitted, muted, and silenced from the narrative:
Silences are inherent in history because any single event enters history with some of its constituting parts missing. Something is always left out while something else is recorded. There is no perfect closure of any event, however one chooses to define the boundaries of that event. Thus whatever becomes fact does so with its own inborn absences, specific to its production. In other words, the very mechanisms that make any historical recording possible also ensure that historical facts are not created equal (49).
History is largely shaped by the stories we tell about the past. To bring home the fact that those stories are constructed, Trouillot compares the historical enterprise to the act of broadcasting a sporting event:
The speech of the chronicler is akin to that of a radio announcer giving a play-by-play account of a sports game . . . The sportscaster’s account is a play-by-play description but only of the occurrences that matter to the game. Even if it is guided mainly by the seriality of occurrences, it tends to leave out from the series witnesses, participants, and events considered generally as marginal. The audience enters primarily when it is seen as influencing the players. Players on the bench are left out. Players in the field are mentioned mainly when they capture the ball, or at least when they try to capture it or are meant to do so. Silences are necessary to the account, for if the sportscaster told us every “thing” that happened at each and every moment, we would not understand anything. If the account was indeed fully comprehensive of all facts it would be incomprehensible. Further, the selection of what matters, the dual creation of mentions and silences, is premised on the understanding of the rules of the game by the broadcaster and audience alike. In short, play-by-play accounts are restricted in terms of what may enter them and in terms of the order in which these elements may enter (50-51).
When we watch our favorite teams and individuals compete in sporting events, we rely on broadcasters to chronicle the event and convey relevant information to us as viewers. As Trouillot explains, each audience member realizes that every moment and action within the event cannot be broadcasted. An announcer may tells us about Michael Jordan’s three pointer to put the Chicago Bulls ahead in a basketball game, but that announcer may not tell us about the pick Scottie Pippen set on an opposing player that helped Jordan get open, nor will the announcer be in a position (most likely) to describe what coach Phil Jackson told his players leading up to Jordan’s three pointer, even though that talk may be just as relevant to the Bulls gaining the lead as Jordan’s actual three point shot. Sports broadcasters therefore play a dual role for audience members in which they use both evidence and interpretation to describe a sporting event. Sports broadcasters objectively report on moments and actions that are actually happening (“facts”), but they also make subjective decisions about which moments and actions are worth acknowledging, mentioning, and analyzing, and which ones can be appropriately omitted from the discussion. To report on everything in an objective manner is simply impossible. We trust sports broadcasters to tell us what’s happening, but we also implicitly trust them to determine what is and what is not important to the game’s narrative.
Historians conduct their explorations of the past in much the same manner. For example, it is a well-known and objectively stated fact that Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was killed by an assassin’s bullet on June 28, 1914. We have the evidence to prove beyond a doubt that this event occurred and that the assassination is indeed a “fact” of history. But the historian–much like a broadcaster describing a sporting event–must make interpretations along the way about the meaning and significance of the Archuduke’s death. To describe everything that happened in the world on June 28, 1914, is simply impossible, as is the impossibility of objectively defining a cohesive beginning, middle, and conclusion for explaining the story of the Archduke’s death. The historian sifting through the available evidence chooses the evidence he or she deems worthy of inclusion and what evidence can be silenced. He or she subjectively selects a starting point for explaining this story, builds the historical context for explaining moments, actions, and events surrounding the Archduke during this period, and makes interpretive decisions about the consequences of the Archduke’s death for the world in 1914 and perhaps even our world today.
As John Lewis Gaddis describes in The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (2002), the historian is at both times a scientist and an artist. He or she uses both empirical evidence and artistic skills to paint a historical landscape that tells us a story about the past. The objective historical facts of the narrative have meaning, but that meaning is shaped through the historian’s definition of the boundaries and relevant evidence to be employed in telling the story.
When someone asks for “just the facts,” they are asking for something that is literally impossible to accomplish because there is no such thing as a fact without meaning or significance. The Archduke’s death is an objective fact that cannot be disproved, but we cannot explain the meaning of that fact without providing an interpretation that is constructed by our understanding of what is worthy of inclusion into the story. These interpretations are constantly revised as new information comes to the surface and new problems in contemporary society challenge us to ask new questions about the past. History is an ongoing conversation without an endpoint that is shaped in part by objective fact and subjective interpretation. Coming to this realization helps us better understand how power structures in both the past and the present determine what evidence constitutes a relevant historical “fact” and what evidence is silenced without further mention.