ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 10, Number 2 (July 2013)

Ten Years of IJBS

Mats Carlsson
(Stockholm, Sweden)

Red Bull Stratos – At The Edge Of The Obscene

A scientific exploration to test human limits in one of the most hostile environments – the edge of space (Red Bull Stratos, “Science”, http://www.redbullstratos.com/science/).

If one were to pinpoint what is hostile about the spectacle of Red Bull Stratos it would not be the omnious presence of the edge of space. Quite the contrary, the hostility we find here is all too human. In this globalized post(traumatic)-society we are done with Mother Earth, every inch of her laid bare; exposed, excavated and climatically corrupted her loins no longer incite exploration. This sexist analogy aside, what I am trying to portay is the state in which we find ourselves today, where symbolism is turned inside out and signifier and signified have become the same thing. In the monotonous everyday life of communication and instantaneity we are embedded within the nothingness of that very same ubiquitous network that promised us a meaningful, collective utopia.

Baudrillard’s definition of the obscene is broader than that of the sexual meaning usually attached to the word: the obscene "...is that which eliminates the gaze, the image and every representation" (Baudrillard, 2012:26). I find in a passage from The Ecastasy Of Communication the quintessence of the Red Bull event: “[i]t is no longer the obscenity of the hidden, the repressed, the obscure, but that of the visible, the all-too-visible, the more-visible-than-visible; it is the obscenity of that which no longer contains a secret and is entirely soluble in information and communication” (Ibid.:27). Furthermore, Baudrillard argues, the factor of the obscene lies within “an image where there is nothing to see” (Ibid.:32). Is not the image of the daredevil Felix Baumgartner standing on the ledge of the capsule, with the earth stretched out below, exactly one of these obscene representations, where the void of the real verfies the useless objectivity of things? (Ibid.:33) In this sense the imagery of the Red Bull Stratos spectacle serves as pornography. The pornography of utter human-technological nudity; a nudity Baudrillard would claim to be the desperate undertaking of trying to affirm the existence of something (Ibid.). In leaving earth, positioning us as observers from the brink of space, we construct earth as mirror; we gaze at ourselves even though we have obviously left home behind; floating with Baumgartner in the abyss. Where does this audiovisual spectacle leave us? Expelled from ourselves we enjoy an alienating disrupture presented by a soft drink company. The free fall of Baumgartner, the descent to earth, is orchestrated not by Newtonian gravity but by the force of attraction of the signified of late capitalism; the signifier falls to earth, doomed to reunite in the imploded sign.

One cannot help but to see the likeness between Salvador Dali’s 1951 painting Christ of Saint John of the Cross and Felix Baumgartner clutching at the railing of the Red Bull capsule from a similar angle; instead of the lake and fishermen below, we see the curve of the globe itself, but the division is intact; darkness and space – life and earth (http://www.dali.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/300px-Christ_of_Saint_John_of_the_Cross.jpg). Yesterday Jesus, today Baumgartner: both floating in the dark abyss; below – the sinful masses in need of salvation. There is no atonement for the sins of humanity involved this time around, but perhaps once more salvation is made possible; the salvation offered with the acceptance of omnipresent corporate power? (http://www.redbullstratos.com/gallery/?mediaId =media2134#).

The corporate discourse promoting and saturating its trademark with symbolic value is standard procedure, what is worth noting in the case of the Red Bull Stratos event however is the scope of the publicity stunt, incorporating science and the final frontier of (dead) space into the paradigm of its brand identification. “Red Bull Stratos seeks to advance scientific discoveries in aerospace for the benefit of mankind” (Red Bull, 2013). Forget NASA, we should look to Red Bull for our science and space exploration from now on.

In 1960, the United States Air Force Captain Joseph W. Kittinger jumped from 102, 800 feet from a ballon-supported gondola (a kind of old school version of the capsule Baumgartner used in 2012). This was part of a research project carried out under the name Project Excelsior to study a new type of parachute adjusted to the needs born out of the increasing prevalence of high altitude jumps from the ever more proficient jet planes (United States Airforce, 2013). The Beaupre Multi-Stage Parachute proved a success, mission accomplished! However in the case of Red Bull Stratos the project is absent, the mission reduced to put the logo of Red Bull in orbit, as it were. The retired Kittinger participated in this (non)event as an expert adviser, the link – or ghost – from past where causes had effects and meaning had not yet vanished; this repetition of a project long since forgotten needed the presence of the original daredevil. The element of true dare inherent to the act of jumping from the edge of space by Capt. Kittinger some fifty years ago only pushes the already flat sign of Baumgartner’s daredevil persona to the edge of meaning and beyond, well into the realm of hyperreality; let us not forget that Baumgartner is no pioneer – the element of the real blurred beyond recognition – but rather an actor hired for the production of the marketing hoax of Red Bull’s latest commercial. One could almost get fooled to believe though – by the big crew perceptibly watching and screening all the stats from the capsule on their many computers – that there is actually something going on; a real event. This re-constitution of a lost historicity, as it were, is the re-construction of an event, re-presented but lost; or as Zygmunt Bauman puts it in his reading of Baudrillard: “[i]n this world, simulation is the principal procedure through which reality is made up, while it pretends to be merely ‘re-constructed’ or ‘re-presented’” (Bauman, 1993:40).

Using the old record of Kittinger as a referent to a past event is strategic, making the simulated quality of the Stratos spectacle perhaps somewhat harder to recognize, however even though Baumgartner is falling like a stone, at supersonic speed, the palimpsest of depthless imagery - endlessly up-rooted - renders this entire performance utterly symptomatic of the hyperreal; here the question of any reality behind the appearance is delegitimized (Ibid.:36).

To render the event even more devoid of meaning we must remember that this entire performance was mediated primarily through the servers of Red Bull, streamed in real time via cyberspace. Is it any longer possible to pinpoint in which realm Baumgartner was risking his life for the soft drink; in bits and pixels, zeroes and ones of the mentally inflated, fantasy space of the network, or in the commercially reinvented sphere of real space?

The core attraction - the supersonic freefall of Baumgartner - adds another Baudrillardian angle of theorization to this event and its open-endedness. According to Baudrillard speed:

...runs ahead of time to annul time itself, since it moves more quickly than its own cause and obliterates that cause by outstripping it. Speed is the triumph of effect over cause, the triumph of instantaneity over time as depth... Speed is simply the rite that initiates us into emptiness... (Baudrillard, 1988: 6f).

Finally, we should acknowledge that this is an event without an audience. Of course in one sense there was an audience, even a big international gathering of people, watching the descent of Baumgartner the 14th of October 2012. However, the notion of an audience as a group of people observering an event in the classical sense might be considered gone in today’s screen mediated information society, with the spectator removed from the actual event, confined to the un-eventful side of the electronic membrane of the screen. The example of the Red Bull Stratos jump, however, removes its virtual audience (in lack of a better word) even further. What do I mean by this? Well, the creation of this publicity stunt as a jaw-dropping performance attracting large numbers of spectators is something that is inherent to the event itself; that is, an inherent form of capitalistic accumulation, independent of the actual number of real, corporeal spectators who end up watching the event in front of their computers; the (constructed) audience is there even if absent, as an integral part of the event itself. This is a real time performance into which real time never entered, or perhaps better still, a real time event which “realtime-ness” lasts forever – extending before and continuing after, encapsulated within the framework in which it was always meant to be consumed and where it to this day has been consumed 33 066 639 times, YouTube; the hyperreal, virtual archive of postmodern society; here re-play comes before play, trailers and promos telling the story countless times before the non-event itself is scheduled (YouTube, 2013). Today live is replay, consuming play.

This aspect is interwoven even in the rhetorics of Baumgartner, in his post-Armstrongian quote of: “I know the whole world is watching right now and I wish the world could see what I can see. Sometimes you have to go up really high to understand how small you really are” (The Telegraph, 2013). Contrary to Baumgartner’s claim, in a way no one is watching; his brain’s three-dimensional representation of earth, rendered two-dimensional by the screen and finally one-dimensional as a result of the collapse of meaning itself leaves this event without an audience; this is not an event but a re-construction, a re-presentation, re-play; the quote above without authenticity.

The built-in notion of a world-wide audience glued to their screens might even be true, but it doesn’t matter any longer: along the lines of Barthesian theory one could argue that what we get here is a mythologized audience, put simply: the presence of an audience is stated as an inherent fact until it goes without saying (Barthes, 2000:143). Barthes writes that “[t]he function of myth is to empty reality: it is, literally, a ceaseless flowing out, a haemorrhage, or perhaps an evaporation, in short a perceptible absence” (Ibid.).

We end up with a closed circuit of non-event and non-audience; this reminds me of Baudrillard’s reversion of the famous question of Leibniz: “Why is there nothing rather than something?” (Baudrillard, 2011:63).

Mats Carlsson is an undergraduate at the Department of Media Studies at Stockholm University, Sweden.  His special interests include theory of ideology, psychoanalysis, philosophy of mind and consciousness and critical theory applied within the framework of the contemporary media landscape.

References

Roland Barthes (2000). Mythologies. London: Vintage.

Jean Baudrillard (1988). America. London and New York: Verso.

Jean Baudrillard (2011). Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? London: Seagull Books.

Jean Baudrillard (2012). The Ecstasy Of Communication (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e)).

Zygmunt Bauman (1993). “The sweet scent of decomposition”, in Forget Baudrillard?, ed. Chris Rojek and Bryan S. Turner. London and New York: Routledge, 1993.

Red Bull (2013). Red Bull Stratos, “The Mission”, http://www.redbullstratos.com/the-mission/what-is-the-mission/.

The Telegraph (2013). “Felix Baumgartner: Daredevil in record-breaking free fall attempt: live”,  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/space/9607604/Skydiver-Felix-Baumgartner-attempts-to-break-sound-barrier-live.html.

United States Airforce (2013). The official website of the U.S. AIR FORCE, “Project Excelsior”, http://www.af.mil/information/heritage/spotlight.asp?id=123109977.

YouTube (2013). “Felix Baumgartner's supersonic freefall from 128k' - Mission Highlights”:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FHtvDA0W34I.