The Anecdote as a Symbolic Expression of the Social and Cultural Milieu of Journalists

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Abstract

This paper analyses two anecdotes that circulate within the occupational group of newspaper journalists in Argentina. The analysis takes into account the strong interrelationship existing between the narrative and the social and cultural life of this group. I draw on a performance-centred approach which allows the possibility of examining some of the formal and generic characteristics of anecdotes. It also reveals aspects of prime importance in the everyday work of journalists, such as the risks they run and the tricks they resort to in order to obtain the news.

Among the different genres of folk narrative, the anecdote has attracted comparatively little attention. This led the well-known American folklorist Archer Taylor to call it a "neglected genre" (Taylor 1970). Till then, the anecdote had remained almost ignored by most scholars, who were seduced by the attractions of other types of narratives such as fairytales and legends.

In this paper, I will analyse anecdotes recurrent among newspaper journalists in Argentina, taking into account functional and generic considerations as well as the strong interrelationship between the narrative itself and the social and cultural life of the occupational group it circulates in. To accomplish the analysis, I use a performance-centred approach inspired by Richard Bauman's article "Hell, yes, but not that young" (Bauman 1986, 55-77). As Bauman points out in another essay, this approach goes far beyond the study of the way in which language is used in the construction of a textual item (Bauman 1977). It represents a transformation of the basic and referential uses of language within what Erving Goffman calls an "interpretive frame" (Goffman 1974).

According to this approach, context--be it textual, situational, social or societal (Bausinger 1994)--has a predominant role, since the narrators, their narrative and their audience are all related as components of a unique continuum. Contexts are mediating agents that relate the text to the narrators' world, at the same time providing clues for the interpretation of symbols, ideas, beliefs and knowledge (Ben Amos 1993, 212). From this perspective, the communicative process taking place between the narrator and his/her audience is crucial This process highlights the devices used by the participants in a narrative event to adapt a story to the situation in which it emerges and to the receptivity of the participants in the storytelling event. In this way, it shows the dynamics of tradition as well as the metacommunicative resources brought into play.

From a corpus of anecdotes I collected from Argentinian journalists, I have selected two which belong to the type known as historical or legendary anecdotes--although, it must be said, a classification of the folklore genre in question has not been fully agreed upon yet. Some folklorists have defined anecdotes as part of a type related to jokes (Aarne-Thompson 1987, 254),(1) while others have placed them with personal experience narratives such as memorates and chronicates (Gwyndaf 1984). But, however they are classified, anecdotes are short stories, presumably veridical, generally centred on a single episode and on a single scene revolving around personalities or local figures. Often they are directly connected with some incident considered worthy of being narrated. According to Bauman, anecdotes "tend to be heavily dialogic in construction, often culminating in a kind of punch line, a striking, especially reportable statement rendered in direct discourse. That is to say, quoted speech is a significant stylistic feature of the genre" (Bauman 1986, 55).

The Anecdotes

While interviewing journalists,(2) I repeatedly came across personal experience narratives and anecdotes about a distressing episode in Argentina's history that took place during the presidential term of Dr Arturo Illia. For many years, Illia had practised as a medical doctor in a small provincial town, Cruz del Eje; later he held several political positions. …