The men of the revolution: Mikael Mikael (in disguise, of course) and Friedrich von Borries. Photo © RLF
Sneaker tourists of the world unite!
by Thomas Becker
Aug 30, 2013

Friedrich von Borries sits in his home-made revolution outfit bearing a golden call to “Show you’re not afraid” and explains to us how capitalism can be overcome from within. But even a child would see that the professor of design theory is not wearing some revolutionary gear but is opting for naked marketing. Unfortunately there were no naïve children at the press conference who might have then said: “But the professor is naked!” That said, Adorno got post-modernized: He’s still good for the one or other things, or so we can read in the book and hear during the press conference from an activist sitting next to Borries in the same garb. So what, may I ask, is all the talk of “the” system of capitalism about, which is nothing other than Adorno’s paranoid idea of the total “context of illusion”, and which precisely by means of the branding “RLF” the guys up front expect to leave behind us at long last? RLF is meant, as a response to Adorno’s adage that there is no right life in the wrong one that the right is in the totally wrong. Sneaker tourists of the world, unite!

What a marketing all-rounder has no time for

Why Adorno of all people when there have since been some theories that dedicated themselves to the question of how complex critical analyses can be absorbed by activists who tend the wrinkle their noses at the academically ossified eggheads in universities? There’s a clear media strategy at work here. In Borries’ novel, mainly only those persons are presented as examples of critical theory who have published critical remarks in the field of communications design or Pop culture. Foucault, Bourdieu, Deleuze, Boltanski, Sennett, Derrida, et al.? God help us, not only is that too complex, but you will above all find that their analyses no longer contain Adorno’s long outdated cultural pessimism, with which one can by means of Pop stars score big-time with innocent youth activists by appearing to be a seemingly anti-academic intellectual. And Debord’s notion of “détournement”, which Borries likes to cite, is something even the smallest media commentator applies today. Borries uses the “RLF” branding as a media event in order to set himself apart from that critical theory of capitalism which a marketing all-rounder certainly does not have the time to appropriate – appropriately. And since the media love more readily digestible buzzwords, Borries reckons he can be sure of the support of young people who have been all shook up by that media culture.

But that simply turns the problem round. Theory is no longer meant to team up with praxis in order to render practical resistance all the stronger, but in order to ensure it remains digestable. Precisely the lack of reflexivity typical of the infancy of the Occupy movement is logically served up here as the ideal of a purportedly new theory. Which is why, or so we can read in the novel, he does not like the dumb word “marketing” either and advocates replacing it by a more intelligent one, “communication”. Media society flunkies are, after all, simply in love with the euphemisms of power.

Golden nails as symbolic capital

The strategy of made-for-media simplification is also what typifies the translation of his “theory” into design. Borries declares that his design products represent the paradox of aesthetic value production. If one acquires the chair from his design production system, and you have to build it yourself, you get gold-covered nails along with the kit. While these may get worn down when banging the chair together, and while they thus lose economic value, they gain in symbolic value. This all sounds so naïve that I imagine either our dear professor of design theory simply skim-read the latest theory on symbolic forms and life styles penned by Pierre Bourdieu or he simply didn’t read it.

Bourdieu would immediately have objected that modern capitalism by no means maintains its rule by repressing the paradoxical value creation of the symbolic. Rather, the hegemony of the economic sphere over symbolic acts results precisely from the fact that capitalism distributes access to the protected havens of symbolic value added unequally and therefore monopolizes its strongest forms in the field of power. And it is exactly these havens in the field of power that are protected against excessive subjugation to the economy and which benefit in particular from this symbolic value added are what Borries wishes to use to convince buyers of his design. And one can intuit that he will be probably very successful: the Club Med of revolutionary culture, as he himself revealingly put it.

A high-priest of neoliberalism

For capitalism not only produces commodities, as Marx already pointed out, but also the subject of their buyers. And from here it’s a veritable tiger leap from the Marx of the 19th century to the truly avant-garde critiques of neo-liberalism, such as that floated by Michel Foucault, precisely one of the theorists who well before Borries swept Adorno’s paranoiden tones of the scale with the remark that one need not be sad to fight. With great foresight, back in the early 1980s Foucault analyzed in a lecture published posthumously how the nee-liberalism proposed by Reagan and Thatcher differed from traditional liberalism: The old 18th century liberalism considered government institutions but an obstacle to the market, whereas the neo-liberalism of the closing 20th century no longer saw the market and its profit craving as the opponent of the state, but considered it the standard for state action. Since then, we are constantly hearing sermons that we should become entrepreneurial subjects whose lives should be as flexible and creative as those of artists so that we can subject ourselves to permanent self-optimization with self-exploiting market risks.

That is the sermon that Borries dishes up once against and serves us warm: “Become a shareholder in the revolution.” But we now know where this demand for creative flexibility leads. No sure pensions, badly paid internships, alternating between project work and unemployment with no prospects of a permanent job, etc. Does Borries even notice what he’s doing? He gives the neo-liberal demand a more radical thrust by subjecting even the political action of resistance to market needs – in the name of creativity.

Not right out front, but well behind

That is not avant-garde, but at best contemporary arrière-garde, radical because it exploits the inexperienced enthusiasm of young activists for market-trimmed communications in order then to be able to pocket one’s own symbolic capital more quickly, while forgoing the arduous appropriation of complex theories. This arrière-garde thus produces a bubble economy of symbolic capital within cultural production: the untrammeled media accumulation of social capital not covered by cultural work.

Das richtige Leben im falschen
By Friedrich von Borries
252 pages, Suhrkamp, Berlin, 2013

Redesign deluxe: The Adidas Allegra in the RLF version is completely black and has a gold application in its sole. Photo © Dan Beleiu
“Show you are not afraid” is the slogan of RLF – and decorates the bottom side of a carpet. Photo © Dan Beleiu
The revolution is in the detail: The stackings for the shelf by Axel Kufus for Nils Holger Moormann are made of pure gold. Photo © Dan Beleiu
When the varnish go off…the message will be shown. “Lack” by Ikea, gold-plated, Redesign: Mikael Mikael, 2013. Photo © Dan Beleiu
A wallpaper with inner life: by Gebr. Rasch with RLF-Print and on the back with the slogan “Show you are not afraid”. Photo © Dan Beleiu
Teatime with RLF: The originals are from KPM, designer Enzo Mari (pot) and Trude Petri (cup), and are now modified with RLF-print. Photo © Dan Beleiu
Promotion video by RLF Propaganda: Interview with the Italian photographer Oliviero Toscani. Video © RLF
The revolution-jumpsuit is part of the revolution movement and part of the exhibition. Photo © Thomas Becker
The men of the revolution: Mikael Mikael (in disguise, of course) and Friedrich von Borries. Photo © RLF0