Confused by Enlightenment: The Paralympic Opening Ceremony

So after a month-long hiatus from science at the Edinburgh Fringe (went well, thanks for asking), I’ve spent the last few days trying to rebuild brain-space and re-immerse myself in all things scientific for a return to the land of Blog.  This largely consisted of caffeinated journeys through neverending tunnels of hyperlinks, after which I could only really muster two thoughts: a) my goodness the internet is big and b) there’s a lot of science happening, would everyone please just stop doing science for a bit so we can all catch up*.  Both of which will be featured as posts in my new blog site,

But then I caught wind of something quite exciting.  I’d spent the broadcast of the Paralympic Opening Ceremony fast asleep on a train from Newcastle, which somewhat impeded my potential as a viewer.  But then word began to reach me that Science, in a no less grandiose form than Stephen Hawking, had played a starring role.   I got excited.  I logged in to channel 4’s website. I watched the recording.  And I finished up, once again, a bit bewildered.  I just wasn’t quite sure what role science was playing in the ceremony.  Its inclusion occurred at rather random intervals, and often in ways that didn’t seem particularly related to whatever had come before.  The topics chosen were limited to three specific fields – Newtonian gravity, the LHC, and the Big Bang – and appearances were often fleeting.  (Apparently William Harvey was also mentioned, although that passed me by).  There was nothing bad or wrong about the way science was included in the ceremony; indeed, the mass apple crunch was one of my favourite ideas to emerge from any of the ceremonies thus far.  But I wasn’t sure what the overall net effect of its role was supposed to be.

To me, it seems pretty obvious why science was selected as a major feature of the British Paralympic Opening Ceremony.  I don’t mean to sound cynical by suggesting that featuring Stephen Hawking probably preceded the idea of featuring science – after all, when Britain can boast one of the world’s greatest figureheads for achievement despite severe disability, it would be a travesty not to include him.  Placing Hawking at the start of this chicken-egg cycle would also explain why the topics chosen were unabashedly focussed on physics.  It also meant Britain’s rich scientific pedigree (historically and modern-ly), a topic largely passed over in the whirl of the Olympic Opening Ceremony, still got its time to shine.  But why science was included isn’t really the question.  Olympic and Paralympic Ceremonies are amongst those rare occasions where many fields – literature, music, sport, and science – are celebrated together, rather than in events largely dedicated to one walk of life.  It’s a rare and interesting opportunity to see the public personae of disparate fields in direct contrast, rubbing shoulders, jostling for attention.  So why was I feeling so discombobulated, instead of purely celebratory, by science’s role in the ceremony?  And, introspection aside, what was the overall impact of science’s role in this ceremony of ideas?

As discussed in this fascinating piece, a Paralympic Opening Ceremony has to strike a difficult balance.  On the one hand, as co-organiser Jenny Sealey pointed out** disabled theatre should not be “tokenistic”.  Able and disabled audiences should be able to appreciate the spectacle without the disability of the performers being the constant focus.  However, one cannot ignore the context of the Paralympics – disability is central to the event, and over-downplaying the disability element could produce an elephant in the stadium.  The structure of the ceremony allowed this balance to be navigated. The main narrative thrust followed (pretty loosely) Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and the physical spectacles produced (a stadium-sized eye, a giant storm with a man on fire, standard stuff) had impressive theatricality, rather than disability, as the focus.  But the explicitly-titled theme was Enlightenment, which comprised two main prongs.  Firstly, the growth of universal human rights, in particular the ‘free and equal in dignity’ idea – which served to anchor the event in context.  And secondly, scientific progress, which served to… well, that’s what we’re asking.

(One point – apparently Sealing and other co-organiser Bradley Hemmings arrived at the Tempest theme quite independently of Danny Boyle and the Olympics Ceremony organisers.  If so, it appears that the obvious go-to representation of Britain is a story set on an island with a churlish, graceless indigenous population and where all the heroic and elegant people come from elsewhere.  Hmm).

On the surface, the way science was employed in the ceremony seems to fit more into the Tempest side of the balance.  By focussing on physics, particularly British contributions (Newton), rather than medical sciences or technology, the event brought science in as a British achievement rather than emphasising links with disability.  It plugged a gap left by the Olympic Opening Ceremony, and provided some rather nice set-pieces: a big shiny Higgs Boson of umbrellas, and All Those Apples.  Although the ‘gravitational choreography’ did confuse me a bit – the Elizabethan masque element didn’t seem to make any concessions to gravity, apart from the fact the performers were on the ground.  Which, to be fair, in this ceremony was quite a rarity.  It was also notable that Hawking’s narration consisted largely of fairly standard pop-sci descriptions of Newton’s gravity or the LHC, ones which wouldn’t have been out of place in a Horizon programme, or opening the chapter of a popular science book.  General plaudits, not tailored to any particular sense of occasion.  So maybe the science elements in this ceremony were designed to be independent of the nature of the ceremony; much like ‘British literature’ in the Olympic Opening Ceremony or ‘Eric Idle’ in the closing one, perhaps ‘science’ was simply being used as a self-evident excuse for celebration and spectacle.

But complete separation from context is not something I believe the directors would have been aiming for, nor something that can be expected in an audience.  Links between the mentions of science in the ceremony and other themes within the ceremony can be found scattered widely.  Some of these are questionable – when one newspaper commentator observed that mentioning Newton was appropriate for games based around motion, the Oxford English Dictionary acquired a new definition for ‘Tenuous’.  But some of them were interesting.  Hawking’s words that the discovery of the Higgs Boson would ‘change our perceptions of the world’ were immediately sampled by two enthusiastic DJ’s behind him, before hurtling headlong into the Spasticus Autisticus routine.  The repetitious ‘change our perceptions’ obviously linked in to the public image of the Paralympics, but this bridge-building raised questions.  Was it just a semantic trick to segue from celebrating science into disability protest?  Or was it suggesting that cutting-edge science had a role to play in changing social perceptions?   Similarly, Miranda’s ‘journey’, with its suggestions of personal struggle and self-achievement (culminating in that lovely glass-ceiling moment), incorporated knowledge and science – a point made explicit in Prospero’s final speech.  But was Miranda representing the individual, the disabled community, society’s treatment of the disabled, or just good ol’ ‘society in general’?  And an individualised focus on the achievements of Newton, as well as the presence of Hawking himself, presented science as the product of personal successes, one occurring despite barriers and limitations.  It’s a rather erroneous picture of science, but it’s one that suggests dedication against the odds by determined individuals is something underpinning the whole modern world, not just something we should smile patronisingly and say ‘jolly good’ to.

It was at this point that I realised I was possibly reading too much into the whole thing.  I was seeing science embedded within an unusual context where the intention was to see an opening ceremony.  My confusion probably stemmed from trying to apply singular purpose to a ‘ceremony of ideas’, and one trying to both bring in and leave behind themes of disability.  Ultimately I suppose the net effect was an experience where different audiences would take away different messages, messages affected – but not dictated – by the Paralympic context.  On the one hand I’m disappointed that science actually played a much more minimal role than I had been led to believe, but that’s the media for you – they’re evil, and had probably set out to upset me.  But I’m also rather pleased that, even with somewhat sparse and vague mentions, science managed to greatly alter the flavour of this smorgasbord of ideas.  People who saw all the Olympic and Paralympic ceremonies as showcasing Britain have their boosterism scientifically ratified by Newton and Hawking.  People who saw theatre on a grand scale will have appreciated the power of science as another source of inspiration.  And those who saw the Paralympic ceremony as a leveller, a demonstration that disability needn’t be the overriding factor in anything involving disabled people, will have been shown science as yet another thing which can be created by, benefit, and celebrated by everyone universally.  Just like literature, or music, or (as we’ll be reminded a lot over the next few days) sport.  So it was heartening to see science working towards all those ends, from the theatrical to the social, and working in happy tandem with so many other ideas.  So perhaps I was seeing a major public event as simply an experiment in scientific PR, and perhaps the results, for me, raised more questions than they answered. But overall there’s quite a bit of satisfaction nestling amidst the confusion.

And yes, I did watch the non-sciencey bits too.  I even enjoyed them.

* = Actually there is some interesting stuff to say about point b; it was genuinely made as a serious proposal by Sir Josiah Stamp, an economic adviser to the government, in the 1930s, as a response to the “embarrassing fecundity of technology”.  Also some other times, I think, although I can’t recall particulars.  And it makes for an interesting what-if.  So maybe another time).

** =

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One Response to Confused by Enlightenment: The Paralympic Opening Ceremony

  1. Tom F. says:

    I didn’t watch the ceremony (and my HPS grasp is, as you probably know, limited) but I practically keeled over when I heard that Enlightenment was the theme for the opening ceremony of the Paralympics. At least to me, when you juxtapose ‘Enlightenment’ and ‘disability’, I immediately think ‘eugenics’, and I think about the constitution of ‘disability’ (like that of homosexuality) within scientific/medical discourse. Especially within the broader context of Atos’ sponsorship of the Games, and the outrage that their handling of disability benefit assessment has caused, I’m pressed to think of a worse word to title the celebration. Worse even than the decontextualisation of Caliban’s speech as used in the Olympic opening ceremony.

    (Also hi Oli I love your blog)

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