Saturday, 28 July 2012

The ultimate empty signifier

Not a time for soundbites, I know, but I’ve been touched by the hand of history this week. The Olympic torch came through Surbiton and I went out specially (apart from having to go to Waitrose) to stand by the road with the crowd and watch. So I can tell my grandchildren I was there and gentlemen of England who couldn’t be arsed to get up would have nothing to tell theirs.

I hated it. For half an hour before the torch’s arrival (from Tolworth, history-touched too) we had to watch a succession of heavily padded police on motorbikes ineffectually waving us back on the pavement, cars carrying important people (evidently--consultants, no doubt), bikes ridden by, I suppose, athletes, judging by their gear, a Coca Cola bus, a Samsung bus, a RBS bus and more buses of other ‘sponsors’, each emitting loud music and conveying compulsory jollity via grimacing ‘athletes’ inside and pom-pom and tutu girls on the roof. In short, tacky.

Then the torch and torch-bearer appeared. Such was the crowd that they were very near before I saw them, and then my first glimpse of the torch did nothing to alleviate my disillusionment. It looked as if it had been knocked up for a kid’s party by some desperate mum from a bit of gold paper and sellotape.

Finally I was able to see the torch bearer and at this point I stopped hating it and took back all my whinges. Unlike the actual or would be ‘personalities’, fellow-travellers and Coke groupies, carrying the torch was a manifestly ordinary teenage kid, a lad who didn’t have a personality’s looks but seemed disarmingly awkward and embarrassed. I thought, if all this is really all about acknowledging the likes of him, then I'm with it.

On its journey through Britain (8,000 miles, I keep hearing) the torch (or torches -- they’re apparently disposable, unlike the flame) has attracted large and enthusiastic crowds in an outpouring that seems genuine (though do you remember Princess Di?). And I wonder, what’s the enthusiastic outpouring for? and I'm driven to conclude it’s for -- enthusiastic outpouring. Certainly, many of the bearers are said to be admirable, but I wonder how many are known to more than a few of the watchers. I doubt if the motivation to turn out and pour out is mainly a desire to respect a respected or loved local.

It’s a celebration -- of a celebration. There’s nothing behind it, nothing it’s a celebration of; it stands for nothing, not, anyway, in the minds of the thousands who have turned out as opposed to the official blurb. When a flame was carried from a shrine in ancient Greece, it commanded respect or awe because it was sacred -- this was the nearest we’d get to the gods. But this torch isn’t anything sacred and isn’t even the symbol of anything, anything at all, let alone anything sacred.

Torch and flame are the ultimate empty signifiers, there simply to signify, intransitive, or to signify, transitive, supply your own object. The latter is just what I imagine people have done.

1 comment:

paulineknit said...

You were a braver one than I. Although the torch passed within a mile of home I had no inspiration to go and watch. If the torchbearers had been local then perhaps I would have thought differently. But I was glad that many (most?) of the torchbearers were people who had suffered much or who had done much for the community and thereby had some recognition. But I still think that the they should have carried the torch in their own area or the area in which they selflessly served.