Come On Baby, Light My Fire

Edge torchDid you hear about the Olympic torch going into space the other day?

No flame; just the torch.

Not content to just light it in Greece or with the usual spectacle of running it to wherever it is being hosted that year (a relay started when Nazi Germany hosted the 1936 summer Olympics, by the way), the Russians not only took it into space (yawn: the third time this has happened) but out on a space walk as well — a first!

It you’re interested in studying the workings of identification systems — how it is that we turn historical happenstance into necessity and continuity — then look no further than the Olympic torch as your e.g.

For we all know — don’t we? — that a flame is continuously different, that each relay uses many different torches (8,000 — count ’em — were made for the London games alone), that there’s a back-up flame (or a quick-thinking smoker with a lighter) that accompanies the torch on its trip (just in case happenstance pokes its nose, uninvited, into our careful choreography), that a relay race or copying architectural features, such as columns, doesn’t indicate some inherent link between there and here/past and present, and that despite the flowing gowns, the graceful dancing, and the solemnity of the so-called high priestess, the ceremony in Greece is pretty darned modern and high tech (skip to about the 5:40 minute point for the actual lighting).

But — and here’s the interesting part — if it is all done “correctly,” it works; sitting in front of the TV, we feel transported back in time when seeing it lit in Greece and probably get chills up our spines when it arrives at its final destination for whatever surprise big finish the organizer’s of that year’s event have cooked up for lighting their cauldron. That is, you probably don’t look at that actress — err…, high priestess — at Olympia and say to yourself, “If this is historically accurate, then why are they at a ruins?”

So study how the modern invention of a torch ceremony and relay works to create the impression of a linkage among disparate peoples and across disjointed times and you’ll start to understand the work required for identification to function smoothly — or at least seem to.

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