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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



Semiotics at the Circus by Paul Bouissac (Semiotics, Communication and Cognition: De Gruyter, Mouton) What do circus performances communicate? They are rich in extreme skills and clever staging. They trigger strong emotions. They make beautiful sense. This book, which is grounded in the personal circus experience of the author, uses semiotics, pragmatics, and cultural studies to explain why we are irresistibly drawn to the circus. It shows how semiotics can be applied to understand and enhance our enjoyment.

Excerpt: Like for many, circus is for me a source of sought for emotions. The successive viewings of the same live performance are not redundant experiences. This allows me after a while to contemplate the particular beauty of a segment because I can anticipate its beginning, enjoy its deployment in time and space, and keep its ephemeral beauty in my memory. I am not any longer harassed by the fast tempo of the incoming information as is the case during the first performance I witness. Now I can savor its meaning in the form of an emotion because I can recognize it. I can hold it, even briefly, in aesthetic consciousness.

Circus is indeed an aesthetic object. Its semiotic analysis provides not only the means to reflexively understand its syntax, semantics, poetics and rhetoric, but also to appreciate its beauty. Not all circus programs are equally well balanced, not all acts achieve the same technical perfection and deliver the same aesthetic pleasure. Many factors are at play. Théophile Gautier, the 19th century French romantic poet and critic, called the circus "the opera of the eyes". It is true that circus is a prominently visual art but like a ballet it is unthinkable without the music that harmonizes with the movements and sets the mood of each act mainly if it is a live band that attunes itself to the beat of the acrobatic movements, even if it is a single drum that sets the rhythm and underlines the danger. I am not sure that the juggling troupe which opened the program at the Blackpool Tower Circus would fare as well as they did without the evocative Italian tune of "Funiculi, funicula". Technically, it was really a run-of-the-mill act. There must be criteria of what a good performance is.

However, cross-cultural comparisons are in order. Each cultural area in the world has its own performance traditions and aesthetic standards. As the train leaves the countryside to enter the outskirts of London, I remember the nun from Bombay. A flash back some twenty years ago when Bombay had not yet reverted to Mumbai. I am in a suburban district of Toronto, waiting in a bus shelter after a performance of Circus Vargas, a typical American three-ring show. A middle-aged Indian lady inquires about the bus schedule. She has seen the circus. She hails from Bombay to spend her vacation with family members who have migrated to Canada. She is a Catholic nun. She likes circus. Her order in India let the nuns go to a circus once a year. I was in Bombay the year before. I saw Apollo Circus there at Church Gate. She knows that circus. I was very disappointed the first time I saw it the day after I arrived. A former student of mine, Duccio Canestrini, had come to assist me in a research on the Indian circus. As we left the tent, he looked at me: "You made me travel from Italy for that?" Nothing seemed right to us. The slow pace, the informality of the presentation, the loose fit between the music and the performance, the sheer abundance of acts that succeeded each other in apparently haphazard order, the laid back attitude of the performers, some items that simply did not make sense to us. I tell the nun: "So, now, you have seen a real circus here! What do you think of the show?" I was expecting an expression of wonderment. "Yes, yes, she said, but it was not as good as Apollo Circus." Then she lists all the shortcomings of the Vargas program which, on the whole, was not presented as a circus should be. She missed this and that. It was too boisterous and somewhat vacuous. Elephants did not do this or that. The trainer did not put his head in the lion's mouth. The jokers were not as funny as they are in India.

Actually, Duccio and I had gradually come to appreciate the Indian circus on its own terms. After the first three shows, we started growing fond of this experience. We were no longer frustrated by its apparent lack of etiquette. We had learned its performance code as we had become comfortable with other aspects of the Indian way of life. Now, every time we meet, after so many years, we fondly remember details of some of the acts we saw at Church Gate. They have stayed alive in our joint memory. We still faintly visualize them. We hear, at a distance, the quaint music that fitted them so well and within which they are now preserved.

The first chapters of this volume deal quite naturally with space and time. Going to the circus means first of all crossing a threshold and accessing a heterotopic universe that beats at the rhythms of its own temporal structures. Next, we will enter the world of circus animals with a focus on horses which are from immemorial times intimately associated with the circus nomadic mode of life as well as with its spectacular feats of horsemanship. Acrobatics come next: trapeze, pyramid, tumbling, and bicycle, this modern substitute for horses, will be the topic of the two following chapters. Then, the clowns: their make-up, their garb, their nonsensical behavior. These chapters will try to answer the vexed question of what is there to be understood and why we laugh... or not. Finally, the problem of how to market a performance, and the semiotic issues it raises, will be addressed. This will lead us to the pragmatic sphere. Analyzing a circus show is not only a matter of identifying the spectacular signs and structures it uses. It consists also and foremost of understanding the dynamic nature of performance itself, its contractual nature, its articulation to the socio-semiotics of its cultural context. The coda will glance at the performers' bodies, and will somersault over evolutionary time to ask a challenging question: where does the circus come from?

The ambition of this book is above all to understand how so much meaning is produced for so many circus audiences the world over, how circus, in its numerous cultural forms, stirs emotions and activates cognition, how both are combined in elusive exhilarating experiences. Ultimately, I will have succeeded if its reading enhances the pleasure of "going to the circus." The book is grounded on thirty years of enjoyable research in Europe, Asia and the Americas. It is based on multiple viewings of circus performances and their verbal copies, at times helped by audio recordings, interviews, and photographs. It is concerned with the interface between the performance and the audience rather than backstage information to which the general public has no access.

Where does circus come from? A deep time perspective

All cultural events, and particularly the performing arts, are grounded not only in popular tradition and historical societal forms, but also in human physiology and psychology as both have evolved over hundreds of millions years through natural selection. Circus has a remarkable status in this respect because its basis, its building blocks so to speak, is a set of typical actions that can be assumed to have been essential for human survival in the deep time of the species when extreme situations offered constant challenges not yet mediated by cultural artifacts. Such situations are now modeled in the circus ring, mostly in the form of devices such as trapezes, fixed bars, and high wires, and enable acrobats to demonstrate their capacity of surviving the dangers they involve through appropriate actions. We have reviewed in Chapter 2 some of these artifacts which are much more than mere props since each one generates a type of survival through actions which form the core of the circus specialties. These actions are often combined in particular circus acts.

These core actions include ( 1) balancing and progressing on narrow surfaces; (2) grasping hanging supports that prevent deadly falls; (3) clearing obstacles by jumping or climbing; (4) throwing or catching objects in a way that allows a person to reach targets or keep a number of valuable items intact; (5) controlling animals both to exploit the resources afforded by some and neutralize the aggression of predators; and, (6) no less important for a social species, negotiating social situations. The wire walkers, the aerialists, the jumpers, the climbers, the sharp-shooters, the jugglers, the trainers of domestic and wild animals, and the clowns are true icons of survival in these respective categories. They implement the successful overcoming of extreme versions of the modern challenges with which we are familiar in the constructed environment of our everyday life: keeping our upright balance when we stand or walk, grasping a hand rail fast enough or tightly enough to prevent a fall; avoiding collisions with obstacles that lie in our path or clearing gaps; reaching for targets or not letting objects slip through our hands; keeping our dogs, cats or cattle under control; and maintaining good joking relationships with our fellow humans, sometimes even in testing situations. We take all these common competences for granted until we witness or experience their selective disruption through physical impairments or mental illnesses. We also become acutely aware of them when our usual environment is temporarily changed: the ground is slippery and there is no bar to be grasped; we have to handle too many objects at the same time; we are confronted with an aggressive dog or uncooperative family members or neighbors who lack a sense of humor. In brief, all circus acts are based on the artificial constructions of extreme situations, and on the corresponding acquired skills that are necessary to meet the challenges they offer, but these skills are not alien to those we need to negotiate at every step in our physical and social lives.

The point of these remarks is that whatever the circus artists perform in front of us resonates in our own body and mind. This physical and moral empathy has been recently explained by the discovery of mirror neurons in our brains. These are visuomotor neurons which fire both when we perform a particular action, such as lifting an arm, and when we see the same action performed by someone else. It can be assumed that such neurons fire with a particular intensity when we witness extreme actions. This, to my knowledge, has not been tested yet on subjects attending circus performances. However, a plausible hypothesis could be that circus is so special and so involving because it reaches out to the deepest part of our body, that is, our primal brain, and activates an ancestral visuomotor memory which is inscribed in our genome and is at the very basis of our sociality in as much as it sustains dynamic empathy. It has been shown that sounds made by the mouth or hands activate brain regions involved in planning the movements that produce such sounds.

This is undoubtedly the basis of what is meant when the circus is claimed to be timeless, that is, not dependent on a particular historical period defined by its cultural make-up and technology. Of course, this claim should be qualified as we have seen in Chapter 4, for instance, that the implementation of some acts is context-sensitive and follows socio-cultural evolution. Nevertheless, the circus displays fundamental actions that are rooted in our deepest evolutionary past, actions that were necessarily vital for the common ancestors of all primates who are generally considered to have been social tree-dwelling mammals.

The visuo-motor competencies that now constitute the complete repertory of circus specialties were present two hundred millions years ago, and enabled these ancestral mammals to successfully survive and reproduce in the trees in which they lived and from which they were getting their subsistence. From the analysis of their fossilized anatomy it is possible to infer that these competencies included for instance: keeping their balance and progressing on tree limbs, climbing vertical trunks, hanging from branches and jumping from one branch to the other, catching insects and birds, picking up fruit and seeds, and carrying them around to a safe place, fending off predators, and maintaining essential social bonds without which individual survival would not be ensured. Some of these competencies became somewhat less vital once these ancestral primates, under some evolutionary pressures which are still debated, started to walk and run upright on the ground, and evolved toward fully bipedal modern humans in a different, mostly terrestrial environment. However, the human species still carries in itself fossil behaviors and fundamental potentials that a determined training can develop and refine, and which can be relied on whenever some circumstances force human groups to seek refuge in trees.

An example of such a fossil behavior that is often cited is the grasping reflex observed in newborn infants who can support their own weight hanging by their hands from a rod, a precious life-saving behavior when one is born in a tree from a hairy mother. Apparently, some individuals preserve this capacity in adulthood and some circus aerialists are credited with the conservation of this fossil ability. It is also well known that grasping feet and opposable toes have survived in some modern humans. There is also other evidence that some genetic lineages have fully conserved atypical biological features that are not any longer commonly found in humans today. These genetic variations, that are now considered to be pathological in otherwise healthy individuals, may have proved to be adaptive in particular contexts. Interestingly, such a rare phenotype was recently discovered in three consanguineous families from northern Pakistan in which some individuals completely lack the ability to sense pain. These families derive their living from entertaining audiences by performing feats that are beyond the scope of those who possess a fully functional sense of pain. It is undoubtedly a liability not to be selectively informed by neuron paths of specific danger warnings transmitted from the skin to the brain, such as sharpness or excessive heat, but a marked advantage if one's means of survival consist of impressing other humans by driving nails through one's tongue or walk on live charcoals. These remarks are not meant to lessen the achievements of circus artists, whose exacting training usually starts early and requires constant maintenance and fine-tuning, but to point out that under certain socio-cultural circumstances some genetic variations may prove to be adaptive, which otherwise could be devastating. Circus and associated activities can offer such opportunities.

This perspective casts an interesting light on the possible reasons that explain why the Olympic Games, as originally revived by Pierre de Coubertin and Michel Bréal, did not include any of the body techniques associated with the circus arts. First, of course, is the ideological principle that excluded professionals from being qualified. One had to be an amateur (a "gentleman for whom sport is a hobby") to be allowed to compete in the games. Secondly, all the Olympic specialties, rooted in Classical Greek traditions that the modern founders of the games fancied to perpetuate, concern bipedal competencies, that is, what makes humans what they are as opposed to animals which run on their fours or hang out in trees. The Olympics typically display the abilities of a savannah hunter: running (and occasionally swimming), throwing weapons as far and as precisely as possible, lifting heavy weights, wrestling, jumping (from the ground), etc., and horsemanship which, historically, requires most of the above abilities. Of course, there is some degree of overlapping with circus displays, in which case the style of delivery is markedly different so as not to confuse one with the other. In any case, even when fixed bars or jumps are involved, the Olympic athletes start from the ground.

But there may be more to this. The fascination for the circus is ambiguous: the mastery of all these extraordinary physical feats is potentially dangerous if it were taken out of the performance ring and used in the service of criminal goals. This dimension has been very effectively exploited in a 007 thriller directed by John Glen (Octopussy, 1983). Set in the context of the Cold War, circus artists demonstrate the military value of their art: walking over walls on a stretched wire, throwing knives accurately, controlling the force of elephants to force fences, and the like. In more general terms, the fitness and charm of the performers exert an irresistible seduction on their audience, sometimes well beyond the appreciation of their artistic skills. This is why, in spite of its occasional foregrounding of "family values" or "educational purposes", circus has always been perceived as a threat to the social order because of this subversive attraction. Running away to join the circus is a popular literary topos but usually is not the kind of situation that families dream of for their children. These aspects also belong to the timelessness of the circus as warfare and seduction are rooted in our deep past.

Therefore, the timelessness of circus does not refer to a kind of non-temporal status but rather to its firm grounding in the very deep time of evolution as opposed to historical time through which cultures changed at a much faster rate, notably with the domestication of the horse which, as discussed in Chapter 4, is the backbone of its spectacle from the very origin of this spectacular institution. Structuralist approaches to the understanding of circus performances can reveal the subtle semiotic mechanisms through which cultural codes exploit and transcend the biosemiotic resources of the human species.

Where is the circus going? Challenges and opportunities

Circus always takes place within a particular culture and displays through its own prism ethical values and social norms, historical and political references, esthetic standards, the memory of the circus tradition itself, even sometimes direct allusions to local issues involving social justice or deeper ideological struggles. This can be achieved by the acting and personae of the performers, their symbolic props, and the dialogues of the

clowns. The circus of the Soviet Union made massive use of these means of conveying ideology for inner consumption. When the Moscow Circus started traveling to Western countries during the Cold War, it was wont to include discreet propaganda elements in its artistically crafted performances. We have encountered such an example in Chapter 6.

Circus can indeed articulate, either unwittingly by conforming to the mood of the time or deliberately in the context of struggles for political awareness, definite contents referring to the body politics and other issues. The alternative circuses of the last three decades of the 20th century were not shy about their activist agenda, at times to the point of self-irony. Alexander Kluge's 1967 film, Die Artisten in der Zirkuskuppel: Ratios [Artists under the Big Top: Perplexed] which received the 1968 Golden Lion at the Venice Festival, bears witness to this sociocultural trend. The main character is a woman, Leini Peikert, who attempts to create a new utopian circus in which animals are neither trained nor dressed up, and artists explain the physical laws which rule their acrobatic acts. This film is an interesting symptom of the interface between circus and activism that was brewing during the rebellious 1960s. This was a time when the perceived marginality of the circus attracted European middle-class youths who saw it as a window of opportunity for expressing their anarchistic utopia. They were also prone to apply their critical stand to the very medium they were using. In 1970, Hilary Westlake founded in London Circus Lumiere, "a show for adult audiences", which performed in England and in some European cities. In this circus the "liberty horses", as noted in Chapter 4, were a group of harnessed men driven through their routine by a dominatrix, and the magician extracted a top hat from a rabbit. Its socio-artistic mission was continued by Son of Circus Lumiere in the 1980s. In 1976, Austrian André Heller created with Bernhard Paul Circus Roncalli to honor a pope who was seen as a bold mover and shaker of the Catholic Church, and allegedly a circus fan himself. In France, Cirque Aligre made light of the traditional pomposity of the circus code and idiom with its rat trainer who was "putting the rat head in his mouth", a feat which seemingly had more impact on the audience than the worn out "trainer's head in the lion's jaws", and other antics. Later on, Circus Archaos went much further in breaking taboos with, for instance, its circus hands miming masturbation in front of the closed-circuit TV screens that were showing the couple engaged in a classical acrobatic act on a pedestal in the center of the ring. This and other extreme features were censored (or self-censored) in certain cities. Obviously, this brief survey is not meant to review the whole movement of the "new" circus but merely to illustrate this trend while pointing out that the core of these spectacles ultimately were traditional acrobatic acts staged in a provocative way.

Many examples of such-short lived circuses appeared in Europe. The extent to which they succeeded in raising socio-political awareness or deeply altering the very essence of the circus remains to be assessed. But there is no doubt that they ushered in an esthetic revolution in the circus. Traditional circuses, whose owners were first flabbergasted by the success of these technically mediocre spectacles, soon started adopting some of their gimmicks. The new wave had been, for the most part, educated in middle-class families, and brought to the circus their literate and musical culture as well as their familiarity with private and public agencies that support the arts and to which they often had privileged access. They also were media savvy and attuned to the latest technologies.

This esthetic revolution coincidentally happened when animal welfare supporters were gaining some clout with politicians. Campaigns against the use of animals in circuses were well financed and could express themselves in the media as well as summon rather large groups of protesters to harass traditional circuses. The new circus was demonstrating that circus companies could financially prosper without carrying a load of wild animals. These animals were regularly shown in their natural environment on television programs with comments that glossed over the harshness of life in the wild and glamorized freedom in nature with properly euphoric musical scores. The new circus, which of course could have hardly afforded the resources and knowledge demanded by circus animal husbandry and training, appeared as the virtuous harbinger of a new age in "clean" entertainment, and claimed to have reinvented this immemorial art. Many companies found indeed some innovative ways of presenting classical acrobatic specialties and used spectacular technology to the advantage of the performers. Québec's Cirque du Soleil, which early had created its legend as being born from a group of street performers, and had secured comfortable governmental subsidies, soon became a multinational company that practically cornered the "new circus" market on a global scale. With the possible exception of the Australian Circus OZ, the subversive circus of the 1970s either vanished with the dispersal of the ad hoc groups that had brought it to life, or was absorbed into the new forms of the traditional circus that proved to be extraordinarily resilient. On the one hand, traditional circuses adapted to the expectations of their audiences, and on the other hand new circuses devolved toward brilliantly renewed ancient forms.

However, the impact of the "reinvented" circus has been considerably limited in space and time. It can be only locally and sporadically, rather than globally, construed as a post-modern revolution. The new forms spread in Northern Europe, where wild animals had been already banned in some countries. English-speaking countries such as Canada and Australia, more recently India, have joined in this trend. But the traditional circuses in the United States, Mexico,

Central and South America, and Southern and Eastern Europe, continue to perform impervious to these changes. Most German, Russian and French circuses have not altered the substance of their programs, having kept producing wild animal acts or now reintroducing them in the ring in order to meet public demand. What has changed is the style of presentation, and the conditions in which their wild animals are kept and displayed. Ironically, many of the trainers come from British circus families and seemingly can perform almost anywhere in the world except at home although there are signs that the horses, lions and elephants are coming back as bylaws are rescinded in an increasing number of counties and townships.

It seems that, in the course of the last half century, under a variety of political, socio-economic and cultural pressures, several trends have emerged from the "timeless" circus. They have coexisted with, and influenced each other. Rather than a linear, dialectic development, circus has branched out into at least three genres: the traditional "modern" circus with its complement of acrobats, animal trainers and clowns (e.g. the German circus Krone); the purely acrobatic circus with a theatrical and comic component (e.g., Cirque du Soleil); and a new genre, the artistic, educational or community circus that takes at times the form of a kind of "studio circus", oscillating between activism and estheticism, with the usual support of various government agencies. These three forms coexist globally as a probe of Internet resources indicates. Indeed, circus fans have created and maintain thorough listings of routes and programs, as well as archives and blogs that show the robustness of the traditional circus. Most circuses now have their own homepages through which they can communicate effectively with their audiences, and address any issues they may have. There are, of course, regional variations that reflect the political economy of cultural policies and the differential political powers of lobbyists who oppose or support the circus on a diversity of ideological grounds.

The resilience of the circus through the process of globalization and its adaptation to changing cultural contexts keeps providing a rich domain of inquiry for semiotics. The playing out of the primal repertory of human survival behaviors cast in signs borrowed from all the cultures of the world achieve in the crucible of the ring a unique and challenging fusion between nature and culture. The resources of both biosemiotics and cultural semiotics, as we have attempted to show in this volume, are required if one is to come to grips with the circus's symbolic complexity and the pleasures it affords.


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