Any spectacle implies an Institution which provides the means for recurrent displays of collective representations. By the word “means,” we understand not only the structure of the physical channel or the medium used and the nature of the underlying social organization, but also the specific code involved in any category of performance. This code makes possible the expression-communication and occasionally the creation-communication of these collective representations. In addition, it determines the conditions of their circulation in a given society. Therefore, in the study of spectacles we should carefully avoid restricting our attention exclusively to the performances themselves and attempting to analyze them independently from the institutions through which they are produced. True enough, institutions cannot usually be experienced as such and must be inferred from particular instances, but when we refer to the theatre, the cinema, the television, the circus, we refer in fact to such institutions although we possibly have the impression of referring merely to particular categories of performances in general, somewhat in the same manner as when we refer to French, Chinese, or Swahili as languages. Institution is understood here in the sense suggested by John Searle (1969, p. 33), who distinguishes regulative rules from constitutive rules and defines the latter as the condition of possibility of some category of phenomena which we call “institutional facts” as opposed to “brute facts.” It seems conspicuous that circus or theatre performances are institutional facts and that their very existence is conditioned by institutions, i.e., by “systems of constitutive rules” of the type “X counts as Y in context C.” Therefore, it seems that spectacles as institutions can legitimately be considered as grammars. These grammars have to be learned by the members of the societies where they are observed in order for them to acquire the capability of participating with appropriateness as producers or consumers in the circulation of the messages involved. It is noticeable, in this respect, that the celebrated interest of children in the circus is the result of education rather than a spontaneous phenomenon. We not infrequently witness the fright of a young child which has been taken to the show by its parents and protests loudly against a situation which is obviously a traumatic experience. It is significant, on the other hand, that circus performers usually loathe audiences which are primarily made up of children because they cannot “appreciate” the skill of their feats and the complexity of their act as a whole and “react indiscriminately” to whatever happens in the ring. In other words, children possess only a partial knowledge of the code involved, they still have to learn the rules and to master the grammar and poetics of the art. This is the case for any type of spectacle.
This research was supported by a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship(1973-74).
These grammars not only enable us to form and understand messages of a special kind but also to construct specific contexts for these messages. They include at least some topological rules, proxemic rules, chronemic rules, social behavior patterning rules, coding rules, syntactical rules, situation patterning rules, and performing rules. Approximately in the same way as M. A. K. Halliday (1971) contends that “syntax enunciates the theme,” we could say that the institution, as a set of implicitly known constitutive rules, provides more information than any of the actual performances it produces. Without raising the interesting problem of the acquisition of such a competence, we can observe that “circus” refers to more than a collection of past experiences and that it creates an expectation which does not exclude a certain amount of novelty. This is why an exclusive concern for the performances observed leads to statements redundant with the situation of the spectator, a pitfall which is not always overcome by students of the performing arts. It is a methodological necessity to include as parts of our object of study not only both terms of the communication process, i.e., the Sender and the Receiver, but also to investigate the specific conditions of possibility of such a process and to engage deliberately in a meta-communicative analysis fundamentally different from a mere exegesis.
This approach to spectacles would have been impossible without the conceptual tools provided by semiotics. Even though some perfectionists claim that nothing should be undertaken until an irreproachable theory has been created, it is a fact that during the last two decades the semiotic methodology has set forth with great clarity, through its confrontation with specific domains of research at the operational level, a certain number of complementary relations involved in any expression-communication process. The variety of tendencies, terminologies, and theoretical claims as well as occasional ideological skirmishes and personality clashes must not obliterate the fact that a relative consensus has been reached and this epistemological minimum lays the basis for a discipline. In other words it provides an original mapping of our experience of our natural and cultural environment and consistent procedures to negotiate this experience on a scientific or quasi-scientific level. The present colloquium demonstrates this inasmuch as, even though dissents are expressed, the issues are formulated in approximately the same terms, and a rich dialogue can develop on the basis of a common understanding of such concepts as “signs,” “semiosis,” “communication,” “information,” “translatability” and so on. The object construed by semiotics, the semiotic model, is indeed a very powerful one because it encompasses the universals of communication and at the same time can account for particular instances by providing criteria for distinguishing constants from variables and for expressing specific functions.
In the field of spectacles examples of such achievements are already numerous but special mention should be made of Ivo Osolsobě’s (1974) major contribution to the semiotics of the theatre, Vilmo Voigt’s (1974) analysis of public celebrations, Solomon Marcus’s (1970) formalistic treatment of theatrical texts, Mariane Mesnil’s (1974) studies of folkloristic performances, and Zoltan Kovecses’s (1975) attempt to set forth a semiotic theory of sports.
The selection of the circus as the subject matter of this brief paper provides us with a very familiar object of experience practically untouched by traditional aesthetics. The circus is somewhat relegated to the half-respectability of the marginal category of folklore and popular culture, although it constitutes one of the most vivid themes of our cultural environment and one of the most profitable industries prospering in our society. As I have in other circumstances tentatively dealt at length with particular types of circus acts (Bouissac, 1976), I will try here to set forth some specific features of the circus as an institution and show how it relates to the contextual culture in which it is observed.
Let us consider first the topological determinations which underlie the physical setting of circus performances. An arbitrary circle differentiates, temporally or permanently, a space within the proxemic continuum of the city. This space is somewhat neutralized or desemantized with respect to the surrounding topological and proxemic systems. It contains nothing except a uniform soil made of sawdust, wood chips, or a rough mat. It creates a parenthesis. It is important to point out that were this first operation not done, it would be impossible to produce a circus act. This indeed requires precisely a semantically neutral ground in order to construct upon it, and within it, its own finite system, and to manipulate its components in an absolute void or noiseless milieu. It has no corners, no orientation, no intrinsic structuration, with the exception naturally of the central versus peripheral categories; but this opposition is not actualized as long as the circle remains empty. Incidentally, this potential topological differentiation of the circle serves to articulate various oppositions such as male (center)/female (periphery) in the Bororo villages (Lévi-Strauss, 1958, p. 156). I have shown elsewhere (Bouissac, 1974, p. 9) that, in horse acts, it contributes to the contrast between collective and individualistic values. By the same token another space is defined: the surrounding “crown” reserved to the audience. Moreover, each of these differentiated spaces is connected to respectively differentiated outside spaces: on the one hand the back stage from which the acts emerge and into which they disappear, and on the other hand, the world where the spectators live. This topological disjunction relates at the same time the two differentiated spaces and creates a communication situation ascribing respective positions to the addressers and the addressees. As Osolsobě says about the theatre, “There is no art whose communication basis would be more conspicuous than dramatic art: communication is the basic purpose of theatre buildings and the whole special organization and equipment of those buildings serves this purpose.” But he adds later on that “This kind of dialogue is, however, regulated by special implicit rules enabling the audience only a limited set of responses” (1970). The whole communicative situation is characterized as complementary or even meta-complementary and is opposed to symmetrical communication in Gregory Bateson’s (1958, p. 176) terms.
In the case of the circus the peripheral situation of the spectators indicates that the messages produced are not uni-directional, they are not primarily of a linguistic or ritualistic social-behavioral nature, but that it is the totality of the patterned behavior performed which is what essentially constitutes the message. This is a feature which is more important than it might sound because it entails not only specific performing rules but also coding rules in contradistinction to the theatre, the mime or the cinema. Notably, it excludes face to face interaction as its primary signified, and focuses on the general biological aspects of the situation which are displayed.
In addition performances are scheduled outside of the regular working hours. This cannot be simply accounted for by the fact that it is the only way for a circus to have enough spectators. It also entails consequences of a semiotic nature, i.e., the activities displayed in the ring are not commonly and spontaneously viewed by the audience as real work but something that is done outside of the regular working time. This has a disconnective effect with respect to social reality and operates a chronemic neutralization similar to the subsequent oversemantized actions, the circus acts, which take place in this blank space and time throughout the performance. But above all, the temporal form of the events taking place in the ring is circulatory because it suggests a universe in which an element would return to its initial state after having undergone a certain number of transformations. Of course, it may happen from time to time that the linear time upsets dramatically the presentation of an act in the form of an accident. In those conditions, we move from the circus to the drama of real life. Let us note, in passing, that the theme of circus is generally used by literary works only inasmuch as it provides opportunities for dramatic accidents.
A further characteristic feature is that each circus act constructs its own situation, its own immediate context. During a given act, there is nothing in the ring which is not the result of a deliberate selection and combination. These decisions reflect the personality of the actors involved only within the boundaries determined by the constitutive rules of the circus. The wild animal trainer is not thrown to the lions. The construction of the steel or nylon enclosure, the disposition of stools and other accessories, and the presence of the lions are not imposed upon the man by accidental circumstances or by malevolent humans or superhumans as the case would be in a novel or a film. However, this situation includes in its system a potential disturbance able to transform it drastically but is conserved through successive controls demonstrating a specific skill which must be assessed in view of the given context. This articulatory level of the circus act must be completed by the semantic operations which are performed in the process and account for the meaning-fulness that such circus acts convey to their audience. This is true of animal acts and acrobatic acts as well as clown acts, but in the first two the articulatory level is fundamentally of a biological nature, and can be expressed by cybernetic models (Ashby, 1957, p. 77; Bouissac, 1973, p. 200), whereas the latter is primarily of a socio-cultural nature. In fact, we should speak of emphasis rather than clearcut dichotomies since these two poles are seldom actualized exclusively in one act. Indeed, social cultural signs are present in acrobatic and animal acts as well as biological signs in clown acts; nonetheless, they all can be formalized in the same way. The formalization is all the easier because the elements or terms collocated in a circus act are already somewhat formalized: they can be considered as iconic signs (Bouissac, 1974, p. 5). They stand for classes and relations. They are selective strings of features relevant to the operations performed. But given the fact that all these elements (horse, dog, ladder, ropes, human beings, actions, etc.) are in the case of the circus at the same time natural and functional objects, they undergo a process of stylization or rather iconization consisting of the suppression of the noise which they naturally contain and the adjunction of supplementary elements for the sake of redundancy: animals are groomed, normalized, decorated, placed on pedestals, the gestures of the trainers and acrobats are stylicized and stereotyped, music contributes to the iconization of movements, etc. Backstage, these modifications involve considerable daily work such as painting the accessories at regular intervals, brushing the elephants, washing the horses, etc. The liberty taken with the plain truth which is sometimes reproached to circus folk is often a consequence of the necessity of such operations. For instance, if I may strike an autobiographical note and refer to a time when I was a circus manager, one of our cats was a castrated male lion which consequently had lost his mane and looked like a female as long as he was facing the audience. We used to introduce him as a female in an act in which he was wrestling with his male trainer. This was presented as a side show and the display was visible from one side only. The point of distorting the plain truth was that this act was based upon the conjunction of danger and love. In fact the animal was playful and friendly, extremely fond of his trainer, and his natural aggressive drive had been considerably reduced by the surgery mentioned above. The misleading description I was giving of the situation reinforced the iconization process inasmuch as it oriented the perceptions of the viewers by suggesting a selection of the ambiguous features which were so transformed into relevant ones. In addition, as I was standing in front of the cage, I used to wave my hat whenever the animal accidentally turned his backside toward the public. This was designed to prevent anyone from seeing that the animal’s anatomy was not exactly female-like. Such an element would have been noise with respect to the intended picture. I can now rationalize my behavior retroactively by saying that I was iconizing rather than lying.
We must also take into consideration the fact that the colorful drawings pictured in the posters and programs as well as in illustrated books educate the perception of the spectators and reinforce the iconic aspects of the circus visual “lexicon.” As a result each term of the text is well defined. Its componential features are easily identified and it can appropriately express nonam-biguous relations. The recurrence of such features or complementary ones which are present in other terms of the text have a functional redundancy. The relation posited between these terms are nonambiguous and the successive operations which are applied to them are displayed in ideal conditions for intelligibility, because the situation itself is an iconic sign.
Therefore, given the space and time setting which creates a disconnection with the continuum of reality and given the fact that each act constructs its own situation by formulating some relations between iconic signs and effectuates some operations upon these relations, it seems legitimate to consider that a circus act is a sort of semiotic formula displaying a logical operation. The signs are unequivocally manipulated in a primarily visual meta-discourse. I would like to say tentatively that they give semiosis to be enjoyed by giving meta-semiosis to be experienced and that this discourse is concretely rooted in what is the most significant in our environment, i.e., the constitutive rules of our cultural reality. There are indeed no legitimate reasons to assume that the enjoyment of logical operations is restricted to a handful of logicians; meta-discursive activities are a general property of mankind, as Lévi-Strauss’s analysis of myths demonstrates, and even some animal species seem to engage in meta-communicative behavior (Bateson, 1955).
I would like now to illustrate this hypothesis with three brief examples. The first one is of a particular meta-communicative nature because it deals with some constitutive rules of the circus itself. We have pointed out earlier that the communication situation in the circus is nonsymmetrical and that the public response is strictly codified. Moreover, the space of the performance and the space of the audience are no less strictly differentiated. The following sequence, observed in Paris during the summer of 1974,* operates a controlled transgression of these two rules and by so doing makes them manifest. A musician-clown enters the ring playing a short tune on a saxophone and bows to the public which responds by moderate applause as it is an introductory sequence. An individual in the public keeps clapping his hands and shouting “Bravo! bravo!” after everybody has stopped. The musician-clown, who by the way is the authoritative character, turns toward him and engages in a dialogue aimed at reducing to silence this troublemaker. It becomes rapidly clear that the troublemaker is another clown and that this argument, based on the transgression of the complementary rule, constitutes a part of their act. I will not take into consideration here the actual content of their dialogue. It consists of an interesting game of words involving mainly pronouns and “yes” and “no” answers, with some instances of echolalia. Instead, I will focus our attention on the fact that by stealing the show and outsmarting his partner the transgressor manipulates the implicit rules not only by substituting a symmetrical relation for the complementary one but eventually by inverting the direction of the complementariness for the greatest enjoyment of the public. The next sequence in this act deals with the qualification of the audience as such because the rightfulness of the situation of the troublemaker is questioned and he has to give evidence that he is a lawful spectator. Eventually, the clown leaves his seat and joins his partner in the ring where he belongs. It could be noted that practically every circus program includes an operation of this sort either in the form of a performer emerging from the audience or in the form of the activities of the circus being expanded into the audience beyond the boundaries of the ring. Such sequences are clearly of a meta-discursive nature.
The second and third examples will be from observations made in the summer of 1975 at the Circus Hall of Fame in Sarasota. Two clowns are engaged in a sort of magic competition, each one trying to outsmart his companion by performing a better trick. We shall examine here only one of these tricks. The clown takes a scarf, puts it on his half-raised left hand and says to the audience several times with insistence “Watch! watch! watch!” implying that something extraordinary is going to happen. Then suddenly changing his intonation slightly he says “Watch” again as he takes away the scarf and shows that he is holding a watch in his hand.
Clowns are primarily manipulators of cultural objects and of their constitutive rules, i.e., institutions, social behaviors, artifacts, words, etc. This example in its simplicity and effectiveness performs a meta-linguistic statement which amounts to a formulation of the context sensitiveness of morphemes as an identical morpheme takes successively two meanings through an instant transformation of the immediate context. We could even go further and say that it formulates a relation between identity and difference, identity having been transformed into alterity by sleight of hand.
Similar operations take place also in animal acts. In the same program, the announcer introduces the great equestrian Mrs. Canastrelli and her Lippizan named Enchanter. The lady trainer enters the ring with a small black pony, harnessed as a Viennese Lippizan, performing unmounted exercises of “basse et haute école.” The announcer protests that this is not a Lippizan but to be sure he asks the pony “Are you a Lippizan?” By an emphatic movement of the head the pony answers “yes.” The unbelieving announcer repeats the question. The answer is unmistakably “yes.” Then the pony performs successively in order of increasing difficulty five different tricks identical to those performed by Lippizaner of the famed Austrian riding school. It takes a bow to the public and leaves the ring. This short act performs a micro-narrative, consisting in one transformation which could be formulated as follows: a non-Lippizan (because indeed the pony is characterized by two qualities, blackness and shortness, which are the contrary of the two specific qualities which define a Lippizan in the opinion of the public, whiteness and height), claims to be what he does not appear to be. In addition, it should be noted that on the one hand a Lippizan has such aristocratic connotations as pure breed, royal stables, historical significance, etc., and on the other hand the little black pony usually has in the circus code the status of transgressor possibly through an analogy with the black sheep. Nevertheless, our pony lives up to his claim and performs successfully the qualifying test. He exits with a hero status. There are at least two levels of the formulation of this act according to what value is ascribed to the difference: one is sociological, the other is logical. Either social inferiority is transformed into social equality (the little guy made it) or more abstractly, alterity has been transformed into identity. This is all the more significant if it is placed in the context of the general function of horses in the circus code. It seems that they are indeed the privileged logical tool to actualize the fundamental antinomy between collective and individualistic values. If one thinks of all the issues involving identity and alterity in society or small groups, one easily sees what content such a formulation articulates visually for the audience.
The choice of the circus as a semiotic investigation is not, on my part, only the effect of mania. It is conspicuous indeed that on the one hand this particular object confronts us with problems narrowly related to those encountered in all performing arts as well as in visual arts. I should add that I take art in the sense of technique and not in the sense of aesthetics. Moreover, it is impossible to elucidate “what is going on in a circus act” unless we relate its operations to the contextual culture in which it is observed. For any art, to be is to be performed and to perform necessarily refers us to the constitutive rules of a culture. I have tried to show that any given circus act can be construed as a formula displaying at least one operation effectuated on relations constitutive of its cultural context or even of its own code. This formula has the particularity of being expressed by modified natural and cultural objects and by context and actions which are performed in mutual relation. Therefore, it seems possible to contend that the circus as an institution produces particular sets of formulae which all have certain features in common. It should be possible to construct a meta-formula, a formula of the formulae, which would be an adequate description of the institution. It would simply make explicit what is implicit in the practice of the circus as performer or spectator. But this would be necessary if we want to enjoy the meta-enjoyment and fully understand our understanding of a circus act. So far I have devoted my efforts to local semi-formalizations with the help of semiotics. These tentative results it seems at least provide a guide to observation and a tentative meta-language which makes this something more than a mere exegesis.
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* Cirque Gruss. The clowns were Dede and Alexis Gruss.