NOTES ON: Adorno T  (1991) 'Free Time', in Adorno T (1991)  The Culture Industry: Selected essays on mass culture,  (edited and with an Introduction by J Bernstein), London: Routledge

Dave Harris

 [nb Adorno's essay was first published in 1977]

'Free time' is a recent term. It has a different meaning from 'leisure'-- which still implies a privilege of an 'unconventional and comfortable lifestyle'  (page 162). Free time means something qualitatively different: it is time still occupied by work, still shackled to it. Free time is something provided by a social totality. There is no genuine freedom in work or in free time, no autonomy -- it is all a matter of social roles which goes so deep that almost every aspect of social life is functionally determined. There is no genuinely free will in free time, it is still being shaped. Increased productivity should increase our free time, but this will still be in the realm of unfreedom.

Take the idea of 'hobbies'. Adorno doesn't have any. This does not mean to say that he is a workaholic, just that he takes everything seriously. Hobbies are mere trivialities used to kill time.  Adorno makes music, listens to music and reads. He admits, of course that his job offers no serious opposition to this choice. 

Mostly, a concern with hobbies shows how reification has proceeded. Hobbies are a mere continuation of a 'profit oriented social life'  (page 164). This is seen clearly in terms such as 'show business'  or  ‘the leisure industry’. Tourism and camping are clearly organised for profit.

The apparent separation of work and free time is only maintained because free time is needed for recreation, to recreate labour power: this explains its importance in bourgeois society, and the way in which it is seen to express a relation of opposition to work. It also explains the 'inanity' of much leisure  (page 164). This is part of a more general attempt to stamp out any real unruliness, and to organise and administer everything. This explains the power of the 'hobby ideology'  (page 164)-- the pressure to take up a hobby shows that organised freedom is compulsory, while not to participate is to risk being labelled as a 'swot'  or an 'eccentric'.

Camping was once embraced by German youth movements to express a 'protest against the tedium and convention of bourgeois life'  (page 165). Then it was harnessed by the leisure industry, and these needs were reproduced and ‘functionalised’ by business. However, people remain dissatisfied with the camping industry. 

The practice of sunbathing is similar -- it can be 'physically unpleasant, and certainly impoverishes the mind'  (page 165). It fetishises people, so that possessing a suntan becomes an end in itself. There are clear links with the cosmetic industry too. It also illustrates how free time has become a matter of boredom. People expect miracles from their holidays, but always encounter the 'eversame'  --'distant places are no longer... different places' (page 166).  Ennui becomes inevitable. 

Schopenhauer developed a theory of boredom, suggesting that if people failed to meet their desires they felt unfulfilled, and if they did meet them they became bored. This might sound cynical but 'Angry cynicism still does more honour to human beings than solemn protestations about man's irreducible essence'  (page 166). Schopenhauer was right, but only in describing life in capitalism rather than some eternally valid principle. Life need not be like this. If there is autonomy, any leisure activity can be genuine even if it is only 'fooling about'  (page 166). 

The same analysis can be applied to political apathy. Many people have the correct perception that participation in politics brings only marginal effects, another example of how 'boredom is objective desperation'. Apathy and boredom result from a general atrophy of the imagination: indeed, a lack of imagination is cultivated, and there has been a long history of the refusal of genuine freedom. Not surprisingly, many people have a need for 'shallow entertainment'  (page 167)  to summon the strength for their work. This pattern persists even 'long after [the] system has ceased to require their labour'  (page 167)  [that is, in unemployment, or even retirement?].

People  are urged to make productive use of their free time, but this involves a phoney productivity, such as the amateur reproduction of poems or pictures. This inevitably looks inferior compared to the specialists, which ‘vitiates any pleasure taken in its production' (page 167)..  The same applies to do it yourself. This can arise from resentment towards the mechanisation which 'unburdens people without... their having any use for their newly acquired time'  (page 167). Following comparisons with the work of specialists, again, people despise their own efforts deep down. Another motive -- to save money -- itself belongs to the old bourgeois ideals of self-reliant labour in some pre-industrial society.

Do it yourself is another example of 'pseudo - activity'  (page 168), which is now widespread. This is 'misguided spontaneity', which lacks real autonomy because it takes place only with the limits provided by the system  [package holidays? Clubbing?]. 

We 'Lack an incisive sociology of sport and of the spectator'  (page 168), but there is certainly a suspicion that sports discipline bodies into the requirements of the work process. Fitness can come to mean fitness for work. In training for sports, we learn to enjoy what society inflicts on us.{This predates analyses like Hargreaves' by some years].

There are clear links here with the work on the culture industry. That work tended to assume that there would be a total domination of both the conscious and unconscious of consumers. However, it is clear that consumer consciousness has not been totally dominated. A piece of research undertaken at the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research [post-War?] indicates the possibilities. It concerned the media coverage of the wedding of Princess Beatrix of Holland to a German diplomat. How did the German public react to the considerable publicity? Could this episode be seen as an example of 'the ideology of personalisation', where the value of personalities is inflated to compensate for the social determination of normal life?  It was clear that this was too simplistic, providing a good example to show how critical theory needs empirical social research as a corrective [not at all like the usual stereotype of Critical Theory here]. The researchers found a split consciousness -- people enjoyed what the media constructed as 'a unique experience', but the political significance of the event was less straightforward. Lots of responses showed that people were 'thoroughly realistic' and able to be critical of the claimed political and social importance of the event. [I'm well chuffed at this -- I 'discovered' something pretty similar in my work on the Disney visitor] 

It seems as if people enter into consumption with acceptance, but with reservation, exactly as to film audiences who know that what they see is not real full-time the culture industry products are not entirely believed in, and the real interest of individuals is not fully integrated into it -- so free time never can be either. Capitalist societies can never totally integrate consciousness and free time without contradictions  [these are supposed to be areas of non interference]. This residual 'maturity' of the consumers offers hope for free time in the future.[Hope for the future...another bit of stereotyping bust!!]

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