Organising the Circus: The Engineering of Miracles
ORGANISING THE CIRCUS: THE ENGINEERING OF MIRACLES
By Professor Martin Parker, Warwick Business School
Visiting a circus has long been regarded as a fun day out, but behind the scenes a vast amount of work is needed to keep the production performing and on the road. Professor Martin Parker, Industrial Relations and Organisational Behaviour Group at WBS, has written an article on the organisation of the circus, focusing on key areas including economics and organisation, community and movement.
Once every hour, ladies and gentlemen, Hubert’s Museum proudly presents none other than Professor Heckler’s trained flea circus. In this enclosure you’re going to see dozens of real, live trained performing fleas. Fleas that juggle, jump through hoops, play football, tiny little fleas hitched to a chariot, they actually run a race. But the predominating feature of the entire show is little fleas dressed in costume dancing to the strains of music. It is without doubt the most fascinating sight you will ever see. Now, the Professor is on the inside, ready and waiting to give the performance. There will be no show out on these stages until it is all over. If you would like to go, there is a small admission. We do not apologize, it is only nine cents. … (Bobby Reynolds, whilst pitching at Hubert’s Museum in New York City in the 1940s, in Hartzman 2005: 207)
A few years ago, I was driving from Stoke to Leicester in the English Midlands, on the long flat ribbon that slumps south of Derby, when I started to pass a fair in transit. First a big truck, with a trailer carrying some kind of collapsible ride. A car and oversized caravan, a brightly painted truck, then another, and another. I passed about 30 vehicles, spread along 10 or 15 miles, mostemblazoned with the name of the owner of the fair. An organization then, on the move, following the money.
Many organizations aren’t very mobile. Universities, for example, tend to be solid things that grow themselves into the ground with ivy and, leaving the virtual aside, are clearly located in one or two places. Other organizations might be multiple but still sedentary, such as banks, shops, factories and so on. And then there are some organizations that can move. They fold themselves away, and roll away, later to unfold somewhere else. Some of the simpler ones don’t unfold much, like mobile libraries and ice cream vans; others decant themselves and their bags into new spaces, like hairdressers or plumbers who visit you in your home. More complex nomadic organizations often require a ready-made site that they can hook up to, such as a travelling production arriving at a theatre, or a sports team at a stadium. These latter examples remind us that organizations are often necessarily entangled with other organizations. So when the Formula 1 grand prix arrives in town, the organization that runs the race-track becomes merged with the organizations that run the cars, and the one that owns the franchise. (As well as a host of other organizations that pitch up and sell hot dogs, run the security, send the pictures, organize the hospitality and so on.)
The odd thing about circuses is that they are, by and large, complex organizations, but they appear to require only permission, space and an audience1. Everything else they bring – the ticket booth, the generator, the tent, the candy floss, the performers. There are over 1000 circuses worldwide, with Italy and Germany having particular concentrations, and India having some of the largest (Stoddart 2000: 43; Cottle 2006: 119). According to the Association of Circus Proprietors, in 2008 there were about 30 circuses touring the UK. Not everything will necessarily be carried by the circus – the mobile toilets might be sourced locally for example – but everything has to be moved. Afterwards, all they leave is flattened grass and tyre tracks, and bag mountains of litter to be taken to the local dump. As the US saying goes, ‘nothing left but wagon tracks and popcorn sacks’ (Ogden 1993: 338). This spatial mobility is structurally and materially unusual then, but what makes it even odder is that it seems to be aimed at making all sorts of categories become mobile too.
Circuses are places where bodies do extraordinary things, and extraordinary things are done to bodies. The voice, whether talking or singing, takes second place to more visceral forms of sensation and expression – the scream, the roar, provoked by the sight of something awe-ful or amazing. Humans do things that only animals can do – balance, fly, carry heavy weights. Human bodies are subjected to inhuman treatment, and animals show human intelligence. Food is excessively large or sweet, noises are loud and painful, smells are intense, colours are bright, and insincerity and violence are masked by a red nose.
In this paper I am interested in the circus as both an excessive organization, and a mobile one, and I want to understand something about the relation between these two features. I will explore the ways in which the circus is a powerful cultural representation of a form of otherness, of an irreducible strangeness, but also in which it is also a business that makes money by moving people and things around. The arrangement of the paper is intended to show how magic and miracles are produced through economic and institutional mechanisms – that disorganization requires organization and vice versa (Cooper 1990). I will begin with the magic, and then pull the curtain aside to see the machine that systematically produces disorder.
This paper certainly isn’t a detailed history, or an ethnography, or a systematic literature review, but a speculative exploration of one of the many places where culture and economy coincide, and where a particular organizational form is produced. Though most of the paper is concerned with the circus, I will also necessarily mention fairs, carnivals and freak shows. At different times, and in different places, the four forms have been related, and it is difficult to make a clear distinction between them. Finally, most of my examples are from the US and UK, which reflects my pitch and my ignorance. There are plenty of circuses in other parts of the world, and I do mention them occasionally, but they are not under the spotlight here.
Professor Parker goes on to discuss the circus in a range of contexts:
If you would like to find out more, you can read the rest of this paper by downloading it .
1. The same is also true of music festivals. The links between festival and circus are suggestive, particularly in terms of the rock-and-roll celebration of nomadism and excess, but they are not the focus of this paper. Trains, planes and cars are as often the subject of songs as drink, drugs and sex.
Professor Martin Parker joined Warwick in 2010 after working at Staffordshire, Keele and Leicester universities. His training is mostly in sociology, with some anthropology and cultural studies, and he has a particular interest in various meanings of the word 'culture'. He is Editor-in-Chief of the journal Organization. He has worked on a variety of topics, including social and organizational theory, market managerialism and Higher Education, culture and popular culture, utopianism, conspiracy theory, the Apollo space programme, business ethics, critical management studies, and alternative organizations. He is currently working on a book on representations of 'economic outlaws', including pirates, cowboys, the mafia and so on.
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