In 1980 I wrote my review of Paul Bouissac’s Circus and Culture which was published in Semiotica magazine. (link). I had met Paul at a conference in Cardiff Wales in 1976 when I had delivered a paper entitled ‘Mirth Measurement a New Technique’. This was the first report on my project on Speech with Movement, which had the avowed goal of working on the biological basis of personal understanding. This had led me from studying static faces , to studying a particular conversation which I recorded at a crucial session in 1976. I contrived to get a 4 eyed view of two students chatting, wired up to devices to allow print outs of fundamental frequency voice movements and head movements. The temporal detail was one tenth of a second and the vocal and kinesic traces were aligned so that the result was a kind of musical score, with separate tracks for nose movement, fundamental frequency, phonetic analysis and then the words in natural language..
I had got as far as realizing that the integration of speech and movement within and between people was absolute, and rhytmic entrainment and synchronies were often exact. I called the activity my subjects were engaged in an ‘evolving model’. I was intrigued by the melodies both vocal and kinesic. Paul told me that the material I was working on was a ‘text’. The puzzle was, how could the activity on screen have the logical form of a text, while actually being the behaviour that was the text? I hit upon the notion of projection to express how it made sense both to the participants and the theorist if I assumed that they were throwing themselves forward in time, projecting outcomes, and then pulling themselves along the melodies to get there. ‘Projection’ and ‘Intention’ are concepts that compete for the same spot in expressing this facility that we have, but the choice of word has different theoretical implications downstream in the arguments.
Reviewing Paul’s book was one of my major projects because it meant going back over the material that had got me going in the first place, namely the structuralist perspective in social anthropology. I had been captivated in particular by the work of Mary Douglas, anthroplogist at University College London. I had gone to her at the start of my project and she had set me up with my grant from the UK Social Science Research Council. this enabled me to follow my own nose but this was greatly facilitated by contact with New Zealander John Kirkland, then a PH student recently transferred from Missouri to the London Institute of Education.
This institute had a 4 headed video tape recorder, an innovation which allowed stable single frames. It lived in the store room operated by Peter Jobbins, store master, and he very kindly let me in to use it whenever I wanted. With Paul’s concept of ‘text’, and ‘trajectory’ and my own background in medicine I tried to directly see a way through for describing what the brain was doing at least on the micro level when generating text in dyadic interaction. Laughter was simply a convenient discrete phenomenon that I could identify on the tapes and model with a cognitive event of a Necker Cube flip. ‘Mirth Measurement’ was simply the literal physical transcription of a couple of shared laughs, a demonstration of synchrony, entrainment, and the ‘uncontrol’ of mirth in comparison to the very detailed choreography of ‘speech with movement’.
I was impressed with tPaul’s depiction of a circus performance as a ‘semiotic crucible’. I was familiar from the structuralist work of the liminal phase of ritual, of the three phase structure common to all ritual behaviour: separation, aggregation, re incorporation as identified by Van Gennep in his 19C work ‘Rites of Passage’ (les ‘Rites de Passage’). In the liminal phase, social roles would get inverted, and the major cultural categories of the people targeted by the circus would be ‘hung out to dry’ so to speak, made visible, tested, and in the end re confirmed when the world is restored despite the disturbance deliberately introduced by the circus acts. As Paul put it, a circus would once or twice a year punctuate the otherwise more homogenous texts of the current social reality of the group. He termed it a ‘semiotic crucible’ because these social currencies would be refined, redefined, and set up again in process that in some respects mimicked an alchemist’s efforts to transform elements into valuable alleles. A circus or indeed other cultural performance was an opportunity to revise and restate cultural norms, and resolve or address contradictions and failures in the extant culture.
From the perspectives of both then and now, the world appeared to be entering a firestorm of cultural and political upheaval, fired by resource over exploitation and population growth. Already in 1977 the graphs were going exponential, and clearly a crisis was looming. When I finished the review, I found myself carrying on to address the global problem. Our story, the human story, was and is headed for calamity. This has become immediate now with the Corona virus outbreak, global warming, the reality of one third of the world population on the poverty line (this before Covid 19), and continuing exponential graphs for all kind of global parameters, extinctions, migrations, rising sea level, and now global pandemic. The summary statement of my review of Paul Bouissac’s book was done as art work – a cartoon- by my cousin Nick Meyer. It shows the text of everyday life represented by a male and female figure, interlinked, leaving a story behind them among frozen memories, made up of the architecture and technology they live with. But they were going to a circus, a semiotic crucible, where their cultural categories might have an opportunity to be displayed, examined, and re defined. When the text resumes, after the circus, it may be quite different as a result of the experience.
The Computation model is an outline for a kind of circus in which are categories can get redefined and our global institutions set on a new and viable course. It needs to start almost straight away, since the Corona virus epidemic has brought forward the crisis to the immediate present.
The figurines in the circus ring are stylised to emphasise that they are carefully chosen cultural forms, precisely ordered for rhetorical effect, as Paul put it. There’s a performing seal, a tiger, an acrobat and his shadow. But at the exit to the ring there are clowns, the white faced clown announcing his dishevelled companion the gross rude clown, ushering in the new world order. That is where we are at globally right now. We have to work with it.