Saturday, January 12, 2013

Anecdotal Evidence (first pass)

The dominant models of truth (and knowledge more broadly) in the 21st century do not include anecdotes. Anecdotal evidence is down-graded in common parlance, current affairs, and the neo-liberal university. Data (especially 'big data'), statistics and (with exceptions) models are more trusted. The anecdote, as the prized tool of humanities research, should not be cast as an inherited practice whose archives should be protected: it should be valued as a uniquely powerful method (and site) of analysis and interpretation. At some future date I want to do this properly, with chapter and verse from key concepts like Geertz's thick description, looking back to the vicissitudes of testimonio in Latin American literature, poring perhaps over the use of exempla in early modern literature, and the place of the anecdote among the ancients. Here just the beginnings of a thought.

In an earlier post on happiness, I cited Adorno's principle that 'the greater good' is always a means to defer, displace and deny the happiness of the here and now. We could also mention Derrida's idea that an ethical act only occurs when there is no code of ethics operating to instruct us: when, that is, we have to act on our own resources in the face of a specific situation. Whatever the place of rules (such as the laws of physics or the statistical likelihood of a utilitarian benefit), both happiness and ethical action occur in unique moments. Tolstoy's principle (Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way) should also reflect that happy families have their own uniqueness. Humanities research concerns itself, at least in part, with the unique constellation of happiness and unhappiness, and the unique moments of ethical action. My model here is Bresson's Au Hasard Balthasar.

In law, witnessing calls up the untrustworthy character of the witness. The anecdote must be told. It involves
the event observed
the observation
the recounting
and the situation of the recounting – its position in arguing a case

Thus there is a degree of performativity in the anecdote, at least as much as there is indexicality: its truth concerns both fidelity to the event and the observation, and to the account (the aesthetic form) and the situation of the account. The anecdote concerns the event, recasting an old event in terms of its importance to a new situation, one where an evaluation or decision is in process of being reached. The anecdote has the power to move through time – this is its ontological ground as fidelity.

We might be better thinking of photography – especially cinematography – as anecdote, rather than as datum.

We might be better placed considering a cultural moment (Geertz's example of a wink) or an artwork as an anecdote, whose meaning – whose relation to both past event and present situation – is not permanently fixed, not because there was no initiating event to be witnessed, but precisely because there was.

No comments: