Adorno's critique of free time

Image: Kenny Gaines

Adorno's critique of free time


In a social order in which the economic sphere continues to exercise its domination, even if the increase in productivity has made it possible to reduce the working day, freedom remains illusory

In May 1969, when student revolts were sweeping the western world, calling into question the possibilities of overcoming the coercive structures of capitalism, Theodor W. Adorno delivered the lecture-essay leisure (free time). It was not just the reflections of an Adorno at the height of his intellectual maturity, in one of his last public pronouncements, about to die months later; but above all from an essay created in an environment that is especially sensitive to the dialectical thinker, which reflected the cracks in reality that, at that moment, came to the fore.

On the one hand, Adorno showed the system character of capitalist society, which affected workers even in periods of time when they thought they were free from labor tasks. In this context, it was a critical assessment of the optimism of some sectors of the left that saw in the achievements of social welfare capitalism an irresistible march of progress. But, beyond that, according to his idea that concepts have a substantial component, carrying with them a “promise” that they will come true, talking about free time meant reflecting on the issue of freedom within a society whose contradictions, to the extent however long they lasted, could not be fully integrated into the consciousness of its members.

Therefore, the conference-rehearsal leisure (hereinafter FR) serves as a very interesting reading key to discuss several of Adorno's post-war theoretical concerns, a period that marked his consolidation as a public intellectual in West Germany: the relationship between free time and work; the psychic dynamics of individuals in mass culture; the ideological character of the cultural industry and its limits; the concepts of semi-formation and pseudo-activity; Adorno's discussion with Veblen about sport; and, finally, the issue of utopia.

free time and work

The Golden Age of capitalism, referring to the years after the Second World War, was an exceptional phase in its history. More internationalized, the world economy grew at explosive rates and the great depressions of the past were now nothing more than simple fluctuations (Hobsbawm, 1995). At least in the center of capitalism, under a social regime based on full employment, structured around the negotiation between capital and labor, the working class, relying on the protection and assistance of a prodigal State and benefiting from the reduction of the working day , he now had free time to develop his potential. The expectation that this pointed to the emergence of a state of emancipation was the target of the FR. As Adorno tried to demonstrate, in a society based on commodity fetishism this period of time would remain chained to its opposite, the world of work, absorbing its forms of organization and administration.

Considering this economic and social strength of the developed capitalist world, the question that arose for critical theory was a possible “change in the structures hitherto settled as typical of the modern world” (Musse, 2016: 108). According to Marx's conjectures, the common misery shared by all proletarians would lead to an unsustainable situation, whose outcome would be the social revolution and, with it, the overcoming of the capitalist mode of production. However, as Adorno admitted, the predictions of impoverishment and collapse, referring to the theory of classes, did not occur as expected, as capitalism discovered resources that gave it survival.

With the increase in the production of consumer goods, a substantial rise in the standard of living of the proletariat was made possible, so that it had something more to lose than its shackles. Furthermore, the impoverishment thesis presupposed the autonomous operation of the market's game of forces, whose immanent destructive dynamics were, at least provisionally, halted by the extra-economic intervention of the State's political power (Pollock, 1978). Even if the objective concept of class, defined by position in the production process, remained valid, this did not necessarily imply that workers were aware of their real situation. Therefore, the price paid for enjoying the material benefits of the system was integration into it, leading to social and political impotence.

It was about dealing with a new challenge posed to Marxist theory. Since Marx, there was the expectation that the development of the productive forces would be accompanied by a political maturation of the working class and the social conditions capable of freeing it from subjection to material needs. However, observed Adorno, the opposite seemed to occur: a world filled with technical innovations, in which man's dominion over nature had reached a degree never seen before, enslaved people more intensely to the mechanism of domination.

Thus, not only did the form of industrial organization reach culture, but also the relations of production affected even “the most intimate of emotions”, making people adhere to the social mechanism as “role bearers” and model themselves according to this mechanism, whose primary objective would continue to be the maximization of profit through the sale of goods. At the beginning of FR, Adorno (1995: 71) says that the fundamental question to be asked about the phenomenon of free time would be the following: “what happens to it with the increase in productivity at work, but the conditions of non-freedom persisting? ”?

In a social order in which the economic sphere would continue to exercise its domination, even if the increase in productivity made it possible to reduce the working day, freedom would continue to be illusory. When Adorno refers to society as a system, he intends precisely to emphasize this inescapable character that this order imposes on subjects, affecting their entire way of life. If the totality of the social system imprints its marks on all its particular moments, the question of free time could not be investigated in “abstract generality”, since it “is chained to its opposite” and this opposition, “the relation in which it presents itself, gives it essential traits” (Adorno, 1995: 70).

Not by chance, the way of life of modern industrial societies is characterized by a puritanical organization of experience: any rebelliousness of the spirit is suspect in the eyes of the dominant spirit. At work, which must be taken seriously, individuals spend their physical and intellectual energies in achieving a productive activity. During rest periods, which should not resemble work at all, the subjects' activity takes the form of relief, of forgetting the tensions produced by overwhelming everyday life. They are endowed with something superfluous, fulfilling the functional imperative of preparing subjects to be reinserted, with renewed energy, into the work process.

Mass culture and the psyche in everyday life

The separation of the spheres of production and consumption, a basic dichotomy in the process of economic life, is projected onto the individual; on the one hand it functions as a producer, on the other as a consumer. The objective structure of society conditions the drive dynamics of its members, shaping a type of conduct related to this structure, a subjective assumption of its continued objective reproduction. In a disenchanted world, as Weber (1987) reminds us, when the struggle for existence intensifies, a ethos methodical and rational way of life, formerly limited to Protestant sects, spreads to the entire social body.

To the extent that this ethos condemns every eudaimonistic and hedonistic character of life – enjoyment, leisure and contemplation –, the way in which free time is presented would depend not only on the objective factor of how work is organized, but also on the “general situation of society ”, referring to the subjective constitution of people.

In the early 1950s, Adorno (2008) carried out an important study that connected the question of the psyche's social conditions to time management in mass culture. It was a content analysis of Carrol Righter's astrological column, from the horoscope section of Los Angeles Times. His interest in this apparently banal topic went back to the joint research on “Authoritarian Personality”, whose objective was to investigate the susceptibility of broad sections of the American population to fascist political tendencies. Belief in astrology figured as one of the items especially suited to the objectives of F-scale (methodological instrument of the research), as it captured irrational tendencies by indirect means, as far as possible from the open surface of prejudice.[1]

According to Adorno, the broad cultural acceptance of astrology would be related to deeper trends in mass culture, making it legitimate to call it a phenomenon of “secondary superstition”: the occult became an institution, becoming a thing. Those who turn to astrological stimuli are alien to the ultimate source of knowledge that they base their actions on. Astrology mirrors the irrationality of society based on commodity fetishism, in which abstract exchanges overlap with the immediacy of relationships between subjects, appearing to them as something inscrutable.

Ironically, observes Adorno, in the column the verdict of the stars is shaped according to the principles of a normal life, molded according to socially accepted institutions and values, whose contradictions prove too resistant to intellectual penetration. Here the “rational” is sold as mere adaptation and the social system as destiny is projected onto the stars, getting its fair share of justification.

In order to deal with the conflict between social demands and psychic economy, the column offers the reader a time management technique, designated by Adorno as the “biphasic organization pattern”. The contradictory postulates found in the plane of everyday life are arbitrated by the specific environment of time and distributed in different periods of the day. A cosmic rhythm of life is shaped, through which sociologically conditioned patterns are presented as if they were invariable data of human life, and whose transgression is discouraged by the horoscope.

In the morning, in relation to the principle of reality, there are work tasks: “dedicate yourself to work”. Afternoon and night, in turn, symbolize tolerated and socialized forms of the pleasure principle. Here, it is recommended that men feel “free to have fun”, that they enjoy the simple pleasures of life; that is, the diversions provided by the culture industry.

Adorno resorts to psychoanalysis to illustrate how the conflict between instinctual impulses and social pressures is appeased by a psychological device internalized by the subjects, which transforms eminently excluding relationships into precedence relationships. This translates into a reward mechanism, a pseudo-solution of difficulties, in which “pleasure becomes the reward for work and work the expiation of pleasure”. Thus, an obsessive tendency towards atonement and annulment is institutionalized (Fenichel, 1981).

It is noteworthy that in this puritanical separation of spheres of life, they do not carry equal weight. Practical success is always a priority, so that the “forgiving” is subordinate to the “reasonable”. With that, it is only possible to surrender to pleasure once the individual has worked, which would assure him of a kind of certificate of security: “I am in the system”. This explains not only the sense of guilt that afflicts the bourgeois conscience in the face of unregulated entertainment, but also that entertainment can serve a directly economic purpose.

Constantly recommended by advertising vehicles, it acquires a compulsive character, contributing to the appearance of a specifically modern type of ideology, that is, the ideology of the hobby, which crystallizes the idea of ​​reification of leisure practices and their commodity character.

Boredom, pseudo-activity and semi-formation

In bourgeois society, the enjoyment of free time often falls back on what it is intended, in principle, to escape: apathy and boredom. Schopenhauer's metaphysical thesis, according to which boredom, the inexorable product of the never satisfied appetite of the blind will, would be inescapable, a kind of original condition of the human species, should not be hypostatized. As a reflection of a life constrained by a rigid division of labor, if people could autonomously determine their lives, boredom would simply not set in.

Thus, even with the possibility, inscribed in the historical horizon due to the development of the productive forces, of more time available for the improvement of their capacities, it would be appropriate to question whether people would really be capable of doing so. That is, if on the one hand boredom is a symptom of human impotence in the face of the coercion of objective social conditions, on the other hand it is the result of a deformation that the global constitution of society produces in people.

In the historical context of the FR, the concept of pseudo-activity refers, on the one hand, to Adorno's conflicts with the more radical wings of the German student movement. For him, student activism was a “pseudo-revolutionary gesture”, authoritarian, impotent in the face of society's power structures. Furthermore, pseudo-activity signaled a state of general powerlessness, which prevented people from freeing themselves from the conditions of oppression in which they lived. A mirror figure of apathy, such a state expressed itself in illusory activities, mere parodies of the emergence of something really new, abundantly used by the businesses of free time (Freizeitgeschäfte), ranging from the tourism industry to household trinket industries.

For this reason, “the crisis of culture” would have deep roots, and could not be the object of an isolated discipline – be it pedagogy or the so-called sociology of culture – but understandable only from the point of view of the whole, of the power grids of culture. society and its dynamic laws (Adorno, 1996).

When faced with the historical phenomena of the first half of the XNUMXth century, Adorno was dealing with a new situation, in which what was previously almost exclusive to the privileged classes – the enjoyment of cultural goods – was now also potentially available to the working class. In his reflections on the subject, in which the essay leisure figures as one of the culminating moments, he persistently denies that this alleged democratization of culture has meant cultural enrichment.

This is not to say that Adorno believed that if people listened to Schönberg or saw a play by Beckett, the world would be redeemed. This is a misunderstanding, which disregards the dialectical nature of the concept of culture. Adorno is a dialectical critic of culture, not a cultural critic (Lima, 2017). For him, the very idea of ​​culture would carry with it, constitutively, the moment of denial, preventing its own fetishization. On the one hand, insofar as it marks a moment of autonomy of the spirit in relation to praxis, culture has a progressive character, which gives a glimpse of earthly happiness.

Great works of art would only be possible under this condition. However, if the concept of culture is fetishized, placed in a separate and autonomous sphere, it becomes impotent, ratifying the context of overshadowing society, based on exploitation and social injustice. To celebrate culture for its transcendence over material interests would be to undermine the critical potential of the concept.

Adorno, Veblen and sport

In Adorno's analysis of sports, it becomes clear how this dialectical element of the concept of culture is present in his reflections on free time activities. This is illustrated in his discussion with the theses of the book by the American sociologist Thorstein Veblen, The leisure class theory, a work that became an important milestone in the formation of the discourse on leisure in modern industrial societies.

During the great social and economic transformations of post-Civil War American society (1861-1865), Veblen (1983) noted a flagrant contradiction between the myth of the average Protestant entrepreneur, ascetic and thrifty, typical of the previous era of Benjamin Franklin, with the exhibitionist lifestyle of a wealthy class, beneficiary of an era of economic strength. Tracing its origins and lines of derivation, Veblen observed that, for this leisure class, the possession and consumption of luxurious goods served not only as a means of satisfaction and comfort, but above all as a means of emulation, that is, as an indispensable factor of distinction. and social self-affirmation. Even activities apparently devoid of any immediate utility, as they symbolized distancing from practices in the world of work considered vile and unworthy, were ways to gain respect from others.

Thus, says Adorno (1998), the objective thrust of Veblen's work, the critique of barbarian culture, denounces what is barbaric in what emphatically claims the title of culture. The alleged emancipation of naked utility claimed by the culture of modernity would be false, since greed and the search for advantages would be present in the concept of “conspicuous consumption”, serving to climb the social hierarchy.

According to Veblen, the temperament of human nature in the archaic phase is expressed in the propensity for struggle, which, in modern communities, is called “exploit”, an unreflected manifestation of an emulative ferocity. In his time, Veblen identified such a propensity, notably, in sports. Rough or delicate, various sports practices – from children's activities, passing through university gymnastics, to boxing, bullfighting or fishing – were nothing more than a sign of violence and a predatory spirit.

In the first place, Adorno complements this analysis, stating that Veblen, with his technocratic spirit, is incapable of seeing that sport not only derives from an impulse to violence, but also that one of its secret purposes is training for work, “ following him like a shadow.” Secondly, says Adorno, Veblen conceives the image of society based on work, not on happiness: his ideal is the satisfaction of the “work instinct”, his supreme anthropological category. Thus, his main criticism of the leisure class is that, due to the absence of economic pressures linked to the necessities of life, it has not submitted to the Puritan work ethic, persisting an archaic element in its mental habits.

Well, Veblen identifies the useful and the economical with the profitable; in this particular, his speech coincides with that of the businessman, who treats all useless expenses as uneconomical, thus failing to apprehend the rational and appropriate link between material life and culture. O telos of utility, of self-preservation reason linked to the dominion of nature, would be, by suppressing want and misery, its consummation in a substantive reason. Product of a social condition in which the economic constraints that force men to adapt are absent, the luxury of the leisure class is reminiscent of a state of affairs accustomed to the idea of ​​freedom, in which things are by themselves, according to the motto of aesthetics Kantian “finality without end” (Kant, 1993).

Not by chance, Veblen interprets the element of “make-believe” present, in one way or another, in every sport, in an essentially negative way. According to the model of his economic man, “the propensity to gamble” and the “belief in luck” would only represent a regression to barbaric stages of man's moral development. It is ignored that in this playful nature, which transcends the sterile seriousness of life, an emancipatory spark flourishes, which is configured as a critique of a society dominated by the principle of exchange and equivalence.

Cultural industry: limits and possibilities

It is interesting to note that in FR Adorno suggests limits to the reification of consciousness in the administered world, whose fundamental contradictions, as long as they persist, cannot be fully integrated into consciousness. This does not mean, of course, that Adorno envisioned the possibility of a system revolution on the near horizon; but, according to the logic of his negative dialectic, that free time, by its very concept, is in constant contradiction with its social co-option.

It is also curious that the only time Adorno explicitly refers to the culture industry is in the sense of skepticism about its powers. He recalls that a specific problem had gone unnoticed when the concept was elaborated twenty years earlier, in the chapter on the “Dialectics of Enlightenment”. This came to light in empirical research that the Institute for Social Research had carried out in the mid-60s. The aim of the study was to investigate the reaction of the German people to an event much heralded by the mass media: the marriage of the princess Beatrice of the Netherlands with the young German diplomat Claus Von Amsberg.[2] Due to the exaggerated importance given by the media to the event, a corresponding reaction from the public was expected, in a kind of adaptation between the cultural industry and the conscience of the receivers. The expectations, however, were too simple. Because, if on the one hand, as expected, marriage was tasted as a consumer good, on the other hand, when questioned, many interviewees behaved realistically, critically evaluating its political and social importance.

Here a question arises, above all because it touches on an issue that seemed essential for critical theory diagnoses regarding the survival of late capitalism: what are the implications of this “double consciousness” for the cultural industry thesis in the late 1960s ? Would she be able to deny it?

First, it should be stressed that the “personalization phenomenon” (having as one of its manifestations the attribution of disproportionate importance to the private lives of celebrities) is only part of a broader context.[3] For Adorno, the cultural industry is a comprehensive system, which permeates society as a whole, in its objective and subjective manifestations. Its effects on social life cannot be adequately measured through localized empirical research.

Moreover, in a text dated from the end of the 60s, in which Adorno (1986) seeks to rethink some of the elements of the cultural industry, the central idea of ​​the chapter of the Dialectic is reaffirmed. Although it deepens and revisits some themes, the general tone is the same: the total effect of the cultural industry is anti-enlightenment, in which the progressive technical mastery of nature is put at the service of the mystification of the masses, preventing the formation of autonomous and independent individuals.

What draws attention is that Adorno seems to foresee a change in the functioning of ideology, which contemporary Marxists such as Zizek (1992) interpreted through the concept of “cynicism”. In the classic analysis of the problem, in the Marxist critique of political economy, ideology is presented as an illusory vision that would cover up the action of the mechanisms of domination. According to this interpretation, the persistence of domination is made possible by the fact that the subjects are unable to perceive the trick and, therefore, the world can continue its course, without collapsing. In the cultural industry, on the contrary, Adorno points out that the trick is transparent to people; however, as long as they receive some form of gratification, even the most fleeting, they continue to watch the show, without any discomfort.

Free time and utopia

In this historical context, when revolution is no longer possible, when the working class swings between apathy and pseudo-activity in a state of latent cynicism, what is the space for us to think about the idea of ​​freedom and, with it, utopia? And how does this relate to the concept of free time?

Although the concept of utopia does not feature prominently in Adorno's thought, this does not imply that he has nothing to tell us about utopia and reconciliation. Far from peremptory statements, he only suggests, in a minimalist way, how the state of the world could be from the negation of how things should not be. Therefore, by way of conclusion, placing a last element in the constellation of concepts that make up Adorno's reflections on free time, we will try to collect these images of reconciliation that point to the idea of ​​an emancipated society.

In the first place, in an emancipated society, individual and society, subject and object, would coexist in harmony, without loss or sacrifice of the “non-identical” of each one, so that the best situation would be that “in which without anguish one can be different” (Adorno, 2001: 92).

The second idea is that “no one goes hungry”, that every human being is guaranteed a minimum condition to live with dignity. The irrationality of today's society is laid bare in the contradiction between the immense accumulated potential of the productive forces and the unmistakable reality that broad sectors of society are still not freed from the burden of hunger and malnutrition.

Finally, as Adorno says (2001: 149) “perhaps the true society will get fed up with development and leave, out of sheer freedom, without taking advantage of some possibilities, instead of intending to reach, with wild impetus, unknown stars”. This passage not only indicates a non-equivalence between knowledge and happiness, but also constitutes a critique of a kind of production fetishism that spreads throughout developed capitalist countries and that, enthroned as the final objective of social development, bypasses happiness and prosperity. humanity's well-being.

* André Campos Rocha é PhD candidate in Social Sciences at PUC-MG.

Originally published on Magazine Dissonances of Critical Theory


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[1] The study was the result of a short period of work at Hacker Psychiatry Foundation, in Beverly Hills, California. The hypothesis behind the elaboration of the scale-F of the “Authoritarian Personality” was that anti-Semitism and ethnocentrism were rooted in the personality structure. It was about reaching out to these unconscious forces rather than relying on people's explicit opinion. Astrology was one of the items that made up the variable “superstition and stereotypy”, indicating “belief in the mystical determinants of individual experience; a willingness to think in rigid categories” (Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, and Sanford, 1950).

[2] Apparently, the research Adorno refers to is “The reception of far-right propaganda” (Zur Rezeption rechtextremer Propaganda), conceived due to the impact of the electoral successes of the NPD, the German National Party. Research was completed in 1972 and published in Ursula Järisch, Sind Arbeiter autotitar? – Zur Methodenkritik politischer Psychologie.

[3] Adorno used Freud's theory of personalization (2011) to investigate the structure of fascist propaganda. “Personalization” is one of the strategies to forge the libidinal bond between the leader and the follower. The conflict, typical of the modern era, between a developed rational instance and the continual failure to satisfy the ego's own requirements produces strong narcissistic impulses which are absorbed and satisfied through the partial transfer of libido to the object. By loving the leader, the subject loves himself, but without the stains of frustration and discontent that gradually spoil the portrait of his “empirical self”. It is from the collective character of this identification through idealization, shared by many individuals, that the leader draws his strength.


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