A History of Failure

This essay was written for a History and English class roughly a year ago. Given the title ‘What types of historical study have benefitted most from interdisciplinary approaches?’, we were told to write about any content that fitted the approach. I chose to look at the archives of plantation slavery.


As I read the diaries and accounts of the sugar plantation, however, I was struck not by the blinding potential for melding disciplinary skills, but by a palpable muteness invoked by the violence contained in those texts. To read the accounts was to become a witness to unspeakable pain inflicted on others, to be invited to observe this violence without the capacity to offer recourse. In this abject failure of empathy, it was to see the body only in its violation. This essay was an attempt, within the scope of a class assignment, to come to terms with that feeling.


In the year since it was written, I’ve encountered that feeling again, from First World War nursing accounts of mutilations to testimonies of the faceless deaths of Indian indentured labourers on board cholera-ridden ships bound for Caribbean plantations. In the unnatural and imposed silences of these unnamed, fleeting individuals, the stable order of historical practice is shattered by the failure of both knowledge and empathy.


But where this essay looks at various conjectural methods to beat back the failure of empathy, that failure invites an alternative option: to let silence be, reading historical texts for its presence alone and to stake out its boundaries and contours rather than penetrate it through hermeneutic operations. By preserving that silence intact, we preserve the possibility of an alternative to empirical records of unspeakable violence. In that silent space there exists, like the relief within the sculptor’s stone, the possibility of voices that were violently silenced. If empathy for the past must fail, we can offer our own refusal in the present, a refusal to speak over silence, seeing it as an obscured presence rather than an absence that must be filled.


Perhaps, where ‘recovery’ is not an option, we can simply listen to silence, as a frame to approach those voices that can never again be heard. 



The last century has seen a flourishing movement of ‘history from below’. From the Parisian revolutionary crowd to the English industrialising working class, a number of previously peripheral groups have moved to the centre of historical consciousness, recovering agency in the process. Yet despite this struggle to ‘recover’, the overwhelming experience of the past entails a deep silence from the very subjects of history. As Tillie Olsen writes, “these are not natural silences”, but “the unnatural thwarting of what struggles to come into being, but cannot.”[1] The reaction of historians towards this pervading silence too often tends towards avoidance, retreating into the longue durée or a materialist critique that negates silence only by negating the actors themselves. Quantitative studies of the ‘subaltern’ may provide valuable analysis, but they continue the logic of silence itself, treating the human subject as chattel, as a number within grander analysis. Where the tools of the historian are shown wanting, a demand exists for new approaches, for “methodological experimentation at the boundary of archival impossibility.”[2] Only then can we engage silence directly, not as a mark of absence, but as the consequence of an act of silencing.

            In the last few decades, there has been a growing consciousness across a number of disciplines of the archive as a subject, rather than simply a source.[3] As Saidiya Hartman writes, “the archive dictates what can be said about the past and the kinds of stories that can be told about the persons catalogued, embalmed, and sealed away in box files and folios.”[4] A necessary part of this shift is a changed attitude towards reading, in particular a reversal of the historian’s reification of fact. For many historians, empiricism is a crucial element of the discipline, perhaps most stridently asserted by William Robertson in 1777:


“[History] produces facts as the foundations of every judgement which it ventures to pronounce. … If we push our enquiries concerning any point beyond the area where written history commences, we enter upon the region of conjecture, fable, or uncertainty. Upon that ground I will neither venture myself, nor endeavour to conduct my readers.”[5]


However, the empirical formula flounders in the face of the realities of archival representation. A glance at the ‘written history’ of the plantation, for example, demonstrates the absence of neutrality within the ‘facts’ of the matter:


1. “To planters and others –Wanted, fifty Negroes, any person, having sick Negroes, considered incurable by their respective physicians, and wishing to dispose of them, Dr. S. will pay cash for Negroes affected with scrofula, or king’s evil, confirmed hypochondriasm, apoplexy, diseases of the liver, kidneys, spleen, stomach and intestines, bladder and its appendages, diarrhea dysentery etc. The highest cash price will be paid.” Advertisement from the Charleston Mercury, 12 October 1838[6]


2. RUNAWAY: A short black skin negro woman named JANE, speaks broken English, has her country marks in her forehead and a fire brand on one of her breasts, likewise a large mark of her country behind her shoulder almost to the small of back, and a [stab] of a knife in her neck. Whoever will bring the said negro to the subscriber in Bridge Town shall receive 20 shillings … JOHN WRIGHT” – Barbados Mercury, 13 January, 1789[7]


3. “Gave him a moderate whipping, pickled him well, made Hector shit in his mouth, immediately put a gag in it whilst his mouth was full & made him wear it 4 or 5 hours.”[8]


What understanding can the historian gain here without ‘venturing beyond the area where written history commences’? To read the text empirically is to accept the absence of the human subject, the identification of the enslaved with flesh, rather than subjectivity. However, as Michel-Rolph Trouillot argues in Silencing the Past, “the presences and absences embodied in … archives are neither neutral nor natural.”[9] Sources, as “instances of inclusion”, are built upon an inverse process of exclusion, within which silencing functions as “an active and transitive process.”[10] Indeed, the very recording of the enslaved as individuals within the archive is predicated upon the active denial of their agency; the words of the archive “expose the enslaved to further violence [as in passage two above] or require the event of excessive violence [as in passage three] … in order to acknowledge and protect the slave’s person.”[11]

How can the historian engage the archive when every mention is built upon a silence? For literary scholar Simon Gikandi, the answer lies in a form of ‘symptomatic reading’. Gikandi writes, “a symptom is not the thing itself but a sign of something else, something against which we can measure the meaning the author prefers.”[12] Here, we enter, yet embrace, Robertson’s ‘region of conjecture, fable and uncertainty’. In practice, Marisa Fuentes’ reading of passage two demonstrates this embrace.[13] Fuentes, using the advertisement in the Barbados Mercury as a basis, flips the perspective, using a thick reading of urban spatial history of eighteenth-century Barbados next to the discourse of runaway advertisements to re-imagine Jane’s flight. It is a reading that rejects Western thought’s confusion of “the imagined with the imaginary, the fictional with the false” in constructing a fictional account on the basis of a close reading of the written histories of urban enslaved life.[14] Through such a reading, we may heed Gikandi’s call to “displace the archive”, “exposing it as a series of stories told to account for a set of events whose meaning was contested then and now.”[15]

However, though we may read symptomatically, the problem remains as to how, or whether, to represent those silenced by the archive. The issue is neatly summarised by Hartman, who points out that “commodities, cargo, and things don’t lend themselves to representation, at least not easily.”[16] Hartman’s solution is to employ what she, in the essay ‘Venus in Two Acts, calls ‘critical fabulation’. Fabula is defined as “a series of logically and chronologically related events that are caused and experienced by actors.”[17] Through telling fabulated stories, Hartman “displaces the received account”, not to ‘give voice’ to the slave, but rather to “imagine what cannot be verified, a realm of experience between two zones of death, social and corporeal.”[18] The acknowledgement of limits is crucial to the method; it is not a Rankean attempt to tell the past ‘as it really was’ beneath the silencing of the archive, but one that avoids closure in order to acknowledge the impossibilities of reaching any such ‘final’ perception. The silence of the archives denies completeness to narratives. Hartman’s stories do not conclude, and in doing so avoid dividing past from present. “I, too, live in the time of slavery”, she writes, “by which I mean I am living in the future created by it.”[19] Where the ‘objective’ historical narrative necessarily invokes closure in its narratological form,[20] the silences of the archive implicate the present, marking the impossibilities of drawing a spurious ‘ending’ to delineate ‘now’ from ‘then’.

In the refusal to adopt a judicial conclusion, Hartman hints at Kamala Visweswaran’s notion of ‘conjectural history’, one that “mediates between … the realm of possibility [and] the realm of impossibility.”[21] Imagination is critically important to this venture: as Fuentes argues, “with sole reliance on the empirical matter of the eighteenth century Caribbean, we can only create historical narratives that reproduce these violent discourses.”[22] Indeed, these very discourses are themselves often predicated upon fictionalisation and libidinal fantasies:


“On board some ships, the common sailors are allowed to have intercourse with such of the black women whose consent they can procure. And some of them have been known to take the inconstancy of their paramours so much to heart, that they leap overboard and drown themselves.”[23]


The “young sprightly maidens, full of jollity and good humour, afforded an abundance of recreation.”[24]


“At present Negro women are certainly averse to bearing children, and careless in bringing them up … [as] having children interrupts their libidinous pursuits, and makes them less desirable to the men.”[25]


How can we satisfactorily challenge the titillating accounts of male witnesses, whose association of enslaved women’s ‘insatiable desires’ with the excessive violence enacted on them pervades the archive? Fuentes writes: “The violated women enter our view in a tortured state, their genitals exposed to voyeurs, without a name, a future, or a past. Suspended by their hands and in that moment in time, we do not know how or whether they survived such an encounter.”[26]Any fiction written from the archive must ultimately be built upon a notion of failure that is antagonistic to the very conception of History. Spivak argues that “normative historical description” shields itself from the failures of an impossible project through “the belief that one has provided a satisfactory interpretation.”[27] The historian fails to “ascertain the consciousness of the subaltern” in their desire for closure. However, Spivak goes on to argue that “holding the desire to know and the desire to represent in tension” allows us to “transform the conditions of impossibility into possibility” by recognising failure, and refusing to demand more information. Hartman, again, is prescient on the subject of failure: “I am unsure if it is possible to salvage an existence from a handful of words: the supposed murder of a negro girl. The girl never will have any existence outside the precarious domicile of words that allowed her to be murdered.”[28]

In this failure, silence once more threatens to engulf the historian. If we cannot salvage existence from the archive, is the enforcement of subjectivity on the victims of silencing yet one more act of violence for them to suffer? Within an institution that flourishes directly from such silencing, in which educational resources owe their very existence to the endowments of slavers and a reputation for “global leadership” built from the machinery of empire, how can we unproblematically reconstitute subjectivity? Even Foucault’s notion of productive power relations admits, “there cannot be relations of power unless subjects are free”. Where there exists only a “brutal asymmetry of power”, as within slavery, there exist only relations of domination.[29] In the historian’s (re)constitution of subjectivity, there therefore opens up a “dangerous intimacy between subjectification and subjection”;[30] in assigning subject status, the ‘subject’ is subdued such that the historian, as writer, can achieve mastery. Perhaps the only respectful position can be to approach silence directly, rather than peering through it. Silence itself can be intersubjective – to read silence is to “enter into the world of another … to go beyond oneself”.[31]  Fuentes uses wordless noise – arguably a form of silence - to trace an account of enslaved women’s experiences of violence beyond the exaggeration of the abolitionists’ sexualised and spectacular accounts.[32] Through the archives, the “cries”, “shrieks” and “screams” of the enslaved constitute, in Fuentes’ view, “a rhetorical genre” that “communicates an historical and human condition in response to routinized violence.”[33] The screams “demand historical attention” without depending on “empirical corroboration or narrativization”.[34] Could the same be true of the inverse of wordless noise, silence? If we grant silence the ‘historical attention’ it, too, demands, can we “make the silences speak for themselves” [35] without forcing subjectivity or words onto that which refuses to speak?

The acknowledgement of the failure of history in the face of silence marks the past as incomplete, and thus reasserts its claim on the present. As Hartman writes, we emerge from the encounter with the archive “with a sense of incompleteness and with the recognition that some part of the self is missing as a consequence of this engagement.”[36] In approaching the silencing of the past, however, historical study must engage in interdisciplinary approaches. The writings of ethnographers, literary theorists and cultural theorists can provide key frameworks with which to approach the asymmetry of source material beyond a facile reaching after facts. To avoid history’s perennial search for an impossible closure, the historian must acknowledge failure if they are to be anything other than a voyeur. Silence, like history, does not terminate, but rages on into an unequal present, placing a set of specific obligations on historical study that must be heeded. It is a debt we owe to the victims of silence to refuse the closure that would seal their fate beneath words.


Ben Jacob (3rd year undergraduate at Pembroke, History and English).

Twitter: @ben_wj



Fuentes, M. (2016) Dispossessed Lives, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Gikandi, S. (2015) ‘Rethinking the Archive of Enslavement’ in Early American Literature, 50(1).

Hartman, S. (1997) Scenes of Subjection, Oxford: OUP.

 - (2008) ‘Venus in Two Acts’, Small Axe 26 (Vol. 12, no. 2).

 - (2008) Lose Your Mother, New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

Helton, L., Leroy, J., Mishler, M.A., Seeley, S. & Sweeney, S. (2015) ‘The Question of Recovery’, Social Text, Vol. 33, No.4 (125)

Olsen, T. (1985). Silences. London: Virago

Spivak, G. (1991) ‘History’ in A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 198-312

Trouillot, M., & Carby, H. (2015). Silencing the Past, Boston: Beacon Press.

Visweswaran, K. (1994). Fictions of Feminist Ethnography. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

White, Hayden. (1980). ‘The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality’ in Critical Inquiry, 7(1)

[1] Olsen, T. (1985). Silences. London: Virago, 6

[2] Helton, L., Leroy, J., Mishler, M.A., Seeley, S. & Sweeney, S. (2015) ‘The Question of Recovery’ in Social Text, Vol. 33, No.4 (125), 8

[3] Ibid. 4

[4] Hartman, S. (2008) Lose Your Mother, New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. 17

[5] Quoted in White, H. (2010) ‘Collingwood and Toynbee’ in The Fiction of Narrative, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press. 2

[6] Goodell, W. (1853) The American Slave Code in Theory and Practice, New York: American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. 87

[7] Fuentes, M. (2016) Dispossessed Lives, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 13

[8] Hall, D. (1999) In Miserable Slavery: Thomas Thistlewood in Jamaica, 1750-86, Kingston: University of West Indies Press. 72

[9] Trouillot, M., & Carby, H. (2015). Silencing the Past, Boston: Beacon Press. 48

[10] Ibid.

[11] Hartman, S. (1997) Scenes of Subjection, Oxford: OUP. 55

[12] Gikandi, S. (2015) ‘Rethinking the Archive of Enslavement’ in Early American Literature, 50(1), 100

[13] Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives, 13-45

[14] Clifford Geertz, quoted in Visweswaran, K. (1994). Fictions of Feminist Ethnography. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2

[15] Gikandi 100

[16] Hartman, Lose Your Mother, 17

[17] Hartman, S. (2008) ‘Venus in Two Acts’, Small Axe 26 (Vol. 12, no. 2). 11

[18] Ibid. 12

[19] Hartman, Lose Your Mother, 133

[20] White, Hayden. (1980). ‘The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality’ in Critical Inquiry, 7(1), 24 & 27

[21] Visweswaran 72

[22] Fuentes 5

[23] Falconbridge, A. (1780) An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa London: J. Phillips, 23–24

[24] “A Voyage in the Albion Frigate” quoted in Dow, G.F. (2002) Slave Ships and Slaving, New York: Dow. 81

[25] “Testimony of John Orde, Esq.” cited in Fuentes, 133

[26] Fuentes 140

[27] Visweswaran, 98 & 100

[28] Hartman, Lose Your Mother 137

[29] Hartman (1997) 55

[30] Visweswaran, 60

[31] Suzan Meryem Rosita Kalayci

[32] Fuentes 139

[33] Fuentes 143

[34] Ibid.

[35] Trouillot 27

[36] Hartman, Venus in Two Acts, 14

man in blue plaid shirt in green backyard