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
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.