Semiotics at the circus

Semiotics at the circus. By Paul Bouissac. (Semiotics, Communication and Cognition 3.) Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2010. Pp. ix, 196. ISBN 9783110218299. $140 (Hb).

Reviewed by Lucas Bietti, Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut Essen

Paul Bouissac’s original and excellently written book is a success at all levels. B uses semiotics, pragmatics, and cultural studies in order to provide an analysis of numerous circus performances that he has documented as a researcher and circus enthusiast over the past thirty years. This enthusiasm comes through in his style of writing, turning the book into a fine work of scholarship combining all the elements of an ethnographic journey and an academic autobiography set in circus performance’s around the world.

The book is divided into eleven chapters, including an introduction and a conclusion. It coherently explains the cultural and social origins of the circus, its cognitive and emotional dimensions, the central role that animals and cultural artifacts (e.g. the bicycle) play in circus performances, the complex synchronization in acrobatics (e.g. the pyramid and the wheel), the logic and biosemiotics of clowns’ faces, and the marketing processes of involved with circus performance. In one chapter, B includes an interesting study on cases of negative experiences, failure, and accidents in the circus. There is another important and purely theoretical chapter in which the author presents the principles of a semiotic theory of live performances. These principles are mostly based on Paul Grice’s maxims of linguistic communication, which include the maxims of quality (i.e. ‘say what you believe to be true’), relevance (i.e. ‘make what you say relevant and timely’), quantity (i.e. ‘don’t say more or less than is required’), and manner (i.e. ‘be brief and clear’).

Several of B’s impressions and analyses of circus performances arise out of cross-cultural comparisons and personal experiences in geographically and culturally distant places, such as the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, Belgium, and India. Based on his experiences, having been part of the audience in these places, B not only provides a detailed description of the cultural and social differences in circus performances but also sheds light on the way the performances are received. Thus, a live performance which seemed to violate rules established by Western standards, which would automatically have made it a total failure, was considered a masterpiece by the local audience in places such as Mumbai and Kerala.

Examples like this show the ways in which the proposed principles for a semiotics theory of live performance undoubtedly are culturally, socially, and historically bounded. Perhaps the lack of a deeper cross-cultural reception study about how different audiences cognitively and emotionally engage with circus performances is one of the few downsides of the book. The book mostly draws on the author’s own experience as a circus enthusiast, spectator, and researcher.