Accepted paper:

Disappearing lions? Wild animals in circus performance, apparatuses and attunement


Elizabeth Vander Meer (University of Exeter)

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores ways in which individual lions disappear or become visible within the entertainment spectacle of a French circus, considering apparatuses, the idea of "actuals" in performance theory and expressions of vulnerability and resistance.

Paper long abstract:

"Wild" animals in circuses are objects of or material for performance, working animals shaped by but also shaping apparatuses that contain them. Apparatus theory as described in performance studies would consider how animals are made to perform, through what physical tools and training, as well as how they are made to mean in performances; such an approach aligns with elements of Foucault's notion of an apparatus and microsites of power. This paper will explore ways in which individual lions disappear or become visible within circus entertainment culture that transforms animals into lively commodities. Based on my multi-sited, multi-species ethnography following the lives of four lions seized from a French travelling circus, I consider how narratives in circus performances can obscure individuality, so that wild animals become symbols within the spectacle of storytelling around risk and control of bodies. At the same time, these animals could be conceived of as performing "actuals", non-mimetic and "performing themselves", much like assertions about circus aerialists and acrobats; the physical trick that is being performed, the individual animal's ability to complete it successfully, is paramount. Wild animals become increasingly visible as individuals within roles in performance when their bodily movements and gestures are seen to express vulnerability in, and also resistance to, performing an act. My approach contributes to understandings of what performance may mean for individual animals, drawing from performance theory infused with Merleau-Pontian phenomenology and Foucauldian notions of biopower, to move towards attunement with these animal performers when interpreting contexts and behaviours.

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Animals' matter: anthropological conceptions of animal bodies as material