Ethno-semiotics of a circus act: Mirko and his goats

Paul Bouissac

Punctum, 2(2): 14-23, 2016
DOI: 10.18680/hss.2016.0012


This article addresses the challenges of engaging in ethno-semiotics research of circus performances and provides an example to illustrate the methodological strategy that is proposed. The approach is bottom-up rather than top-down. First a fine-grained description that integrates both perceptual information and emotional experience from the individual point of view of the observer is produced after several attentive viewings of the performance. Reactions from other members of the audience are also noted to limit the possibility of a strictly subjective verbal rendering of the experience. Secondly, the cultural implications, semantic connotations, and cognitive semiotics of the performance are probed in order to develop a ‘thick description’ that can serve as a basis for a tentative interpretation. The article then proceeds from the description of a goat act to examine other acts belonging to the same paradigm in circus culture: animals that are paradoxically trained to do nothing. The final section attempts to explain the cognitive reason for which such acts are enjoyed by the audience, and, more generally, why the circus makes sense even in its most unexpected productions.

KEYWORDS: ethno-semiotics, methodology, humour, theory of mind
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