Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Adorno on Free Time

To elucidate the problem I would like to use a trivial personal experience. Time and again in interviews and questionnaires one is asked what one has for a hobby. Whenever the illustrated newspapers report one of those matadors of the culture industry -whereby talking about such people in turn constitutes one of the chief activities of the culture industry- then only seldom do the papers miss the opportunity to tell something more or less homely about the hobbies of the people in question. I am startled by the question whenever I meet with it. I have no hobby. Not that I'm a workaholic who wouldn't know how to do anything else but get down to business and do what has to be done. But rather I take the activities with which I occupy myself beyond the bounds of my official profession, without exception, so seriously that I would be shocked by the idea that they had anything to do with hobbies -that is, activities I'm mindlessly infatuated with only in order to kill time- if my experiences had not toughened me against manifestations of barbarism that have become self-evident and acceptable. Making music, listening to music, reading with concentration constitute an integral element of my existence; the word hobby would make a mockery of them. -T.W. Adorno, from his essay "Free Time" (1969)
If you can get past the apparently curmudgeonly veneer of this passage, there is a really interesting argument here. The first thing Adorno notes at the beginning of this essay is that the expression "free time" is itself a recent development, thus asking anything about it in abstraction from concrete developments in contemporary societies is a question without content.

What is "free time" for us? Adorno points out that in order for the phrase to even be intelligible, it must be "shackled to its contrary": free time is the opposite of "unfree time", or time "occupied by labor... [which is] determined heteronomously". In other words, the expression "free time" is meant only to mark off those time intervals in which we aren't working or laboring according to the dictates of some job or task whose imperatives issue from without.

As Marx argued, labor becomes a commodity in capitalist societies, that is, it becomes reified (i.e. it becomes thought of as an exchangeable object, rather than a contingent ensemble of social relations).

But the paradox is that free time, "which understands itself to be the opposite of reification, a sanctuary of immediate life within a completely mediated system, is itself reified like the rigid demarcation between labor and free time. This border perpetuates the forms of social life organized according to the system of profit".

Now, it's important to note here that it hasn't always been this way. Societies have been configured differently in different historical epochs, and the idea of "free time" or "leisure" would not have made sense within these social formations in the ways that it does in our society.

As sociologist James Fulcher points out:
Industrial capitalism not only created work, it also created "leisure" in the modern sense of the term. This might seem surprising, for the early cotton masters wanted to keep their machinery running as long as possible and forced their employees to work very long hours. However, by requiring continuous work during work hours and ruling out non-work activity, employers had separated out leisure from work. Some did this quite explicitly by creating distinct holiday periods, when factories were shut down, because it was better to do this than have work disrupted by the casual taking of days off. "Leisure" is a distinct non-work time, whether in the form of the holiday, weekend, or evening, was a result of the disciplined and bounded work time created by capitalist production.
But there was also another way in which capitalism was implicated in the creation of "free time":
Leisure was also the creation of capitalism through the commercialization of leisure. This no longer meant participation in traditional sports and pastimes. Workers began to pay for leisure activities organized by capitalist enterprises...The importance of this could hardly be exaggerated, for whole new industries were emerging to exploit and develop the leisure market, which was to become a huge source of consumer demand, employment and profit. [see Fulcher's excellent (2004) Capitalism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford UP)]
Now, although we've re-situated the idea of "free time" back into its social and historical context, we've still yet to say anything substantive about it.

The first question to ask is: what role does it play within contemporary societies?

For Adorno, the effect of contemporary capitalist societies is to "hold people under a spell", under "an existence imposed upon people by society" that is "not identical with what they are in themselves or what they could be". Now Adorno doesn't want to claim that we can or should make any simple division between "what human beings are in themselves and their so-called social roles". But the important point here is that the way that human beings behave/act under certain conditions is by no means inevitable, since those conditions could be changed. The crucial thing to note here is that social institutions could be otherwise, they could be organized according to different principles, and as a result we can imagine people in contemporary societies being very different as well. The upshot is that the generalized picture of the consumerist, egoistic subject is deabsolutized: it is not inevitable that people will behave in this way, that their desires be configured in this way, and so on.

Because capitalist processes have begun to colonized the spheres of leisure and culture, Adorno worries that "even where the spell loosens its hold and people are at least subjectively convinced that they are acting out of their own will, this will itself is fashioned by precisely what they want to shake off during their time outside of work."

In short, "unfreedom is expanding within free time, and most of the unfree people are as unconscious of the process as they are of their own unfreedom". "The irony in the expression "leisure industry" is as thoroughly forgotten as the expression show business is taken seriously."

A peculiar development of the colonization of leisure time by the dictates of profit is that consumption itself has become a pastime. Think of the phrase "consumer goods". What are these? They are goods produced for consumption, that is, goods produced for the sake of the activity of consumption. Consumption itself is the purpose of this activity.

The "Teen Talk Barbie" strikes me as the perfect metaphor for the barbarism of this process. First consider that the doll's bodily proportions are perfect distillations of a set of oppressive norms prescribing what a woman's body "should" look like (incidentally, the University Central Hospital in Helsinki, concluded that "Barbie's figure would lack the 17 to 22 percent body fat required for a woman to menstruate"). The "beauty" norms according to which Barbie is fashioned are ubiquitous, and contribute to the reproduction of the idea that women should think of themselves according to certain prescribed criteria.

Moreover, the "teen talk barbie", itself something people are expected to purchase, is programmed to say things like "I love shopping!", "Math is hard!", "Will we ever have enough clothes?".

It's as though, on a scale larger than Barbie dolls, we're called on by inert plastic objects on a shelf to think about ourselves and consumption in ways that are sick.

Happy Holidays! I've got to go get some shopping done before time runs out.


Arvilla said...

Wal-Mart's holiday ad campaign has been completely centered on the idea of buying quality, family time, and at a cheap price. It's really interesting. They almost directly say (though I may be off on the exact wording) "Family time--Get it for less at Wal-Mart." As if "time" is a commodity. As if you couldn't get that kind of time for free if you didn't think it required a new xbox.

Jennifer Ewing said...

Haven't read in a while, but you guys still deliver!