One of my favorite essays of Adorno’s—and one of his most accessible—is his essay on “free time.” It’s short—just 11 pages in my copy of The Culture Industry—and I think it’s one of his more readable pieces. It’s also a very prescient piece, an essay that has grown more and more relevant as our relationship to free time has grown increasingly fraught.
Adorno begins by noting that the phrase “free time” is a recent coinage, as its precursor “leisure” denoted a completely different way of life that was (and is) well out of reach of nearly everybody who has some measure of “free time.” (For context, I believe this essay was written in 1969.) Almost immediately after that, he declares that “free time is shackled to its opposite.”
This is the main theme of the essay: the extent to which the hours what we consider to be ours are not really ours, and the ways that the culture industry attempts to colonize that time that us members of the middle class believe to be our free time. He puts it plainly when he says “unfreedom is gradually annexing ‘free time,’ and the majority of unfree people are as unaware of this process as they are of the unfreedom itself.”
Of course, in a culture where people regularly work 60- to 80-hour workweeks, and where we are all chained to the office by the Internet and mobile devices, these sentiments seem rather obvious. Adorno’s ideas go far deeper than this. At root, he sees our leisure activities as mere appendages of our work lives: “in accordance with the predominant work ethic, time free of work should be utilized for the recreation of expended labor power, then work-less time, precisely because it is a mere appendage of work, is severed from the latter with puritanical zeal.” Adorno goes on to argue that the real point of free time is to offer us rest and recuperation so that we may be prepared to do more work.
Adorno also presents the rather dark idea that our free time has merely become another thing for capitalism to monopolize. He mentions how travel has become a profitable industry, and he also invokes the idea of a “leisure industry” dedicated to finding ways of monetizing every last moment we spend outside of the office. Then he goes on to remark on our inability to opt out of such a state of affairs: “woe betide you if you have no hobby, no pastime, then you are a swot or an old-timer, an eccentric, and you will fall prey to ridicule in a society which foists upon you what your free time should be.” And, of course, it is not enough that we exploit our free time in approved manners—we must also demonstrate in culturally approved ways that we have used this time well: “if employees return from their holidays without having acquired the mandatory skin tone [i.e., a sun tan], they can be quite sure their colleagues will ask them the pointed question, ‘Haven’t you been on holiday, then?'”
Having laid out all of this, Adorno gets to the root of the matter: our concept of boredom, which he sees as purely an emanation of the prevailing capitalist order. “Boredom is a function of life which is lived under the compulsion to work, and under the strict division of labor. . . . If people were able to make their own decisions about themselves and their lives, if they were not caught up in the realm of the eversame, they would not have to be bored.”
Boredom is closely related to imagination, which Adorno sees as being stamped out as we grow into maturity:
Those who want to adapt must learn increasingly to curb their imagination. For the most part the very development of the imagination is crippled by the experience of early childhood. The lack of imagination which is cultivated and inculcated by society renders people helpless in their free time. The impertinent question of what people should do with the vast amount of free time now at their disposal—as if it was a question of alms and not human rights—is based upon this very unimaginativeness.
As he closes the essay, Adorno notes a slight reason for optimism: “what the culture industry presents people with in their free time . . . is indeed consumed and accepted, but with a kind of reservation.” In other words, people have some idea of how their free time is monetized, how their “desires” are not really theirs but rather wants and needs created by advertising and propaganda.
I think it’s rather uncontroversial to say that this awareness has only grown in the decades that followed Adorno’s writing of this essay. Many subsequent individuals have discussed precisely how aware we are of this now—for instance, David Foster Wallace’s essay “E Unibus Pluram,” where he breaks down how we are taught that we become individuals by consuming mass-commoditized products. Or we might think of Richard Linklater’s unexpected hit Slacker (1991), which celebrated people who had opted out of using their lives and free time in socially approved manners.
Undoubtedly, there’s a rather loud and pervasive critique that has come out of the sort of ideas Adorno lodged in his essay on free time. People these days are very savvy about the ways profit-seeking industries try to impose themselves on their lives, and there’s a very serious discussion of how to separate one’s free time from one’s productive life. There’s even been a backlash against the ideas of conformity and utility that have monopolized our education system.
I do think, though, there’s quite a way to go. The ideas that Adorno critiques are still the prevailing ideology that we are all inculcated in as a part of childhood and adolescence (to see how deep they reach, just try watching Slacker without feeling that its characters are losers or oddballs). There’s still plenty of guilt over “wasting” one’s time (just see how many people write posts on Facebook about how they wish they weren’t so addicted to Facebook). And, of course, the economic productivity of the American workforce continues to rise to unprecedented levels (while compensation remains stagnant, or decreases). The counter-strains presented by people like Wallace and Linklater are still a part of the counter-culture, not the culture at large. Which is to say, Adorno’s essay “Free Time” is still extremely relevant, and very much worth reading.