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Theodor Adorno and an Apology for Free Time


The subtle, radical difference between enjoying a hobby and the free exercise of your free time.

In colloquial terms, we often confuse the pursuit of a hobby with the enjoyment of free time. A hobby, it seems at first, is precisely what we do during our free time. It’s an activity, a study, or a kind of entertainment for which we set aside some of the time we don’t spend on work or study (or participation in the circuit of capital production). But the semblance of parity between hobbies and free time is not obvious, and won’t withstand any direct analysis.

The German philosopher, Theodor Adorno, focused mostly on sociology, psychology and aesthetics. His critique of free time highlights the way in which capitalism, and any society’s dominant power structures, regulate our use of leisure time. He concludes that, in fact, the promotion of hobbies is contrary to leisure itself, and in some sense, they’re contrary even to freedom.

Adorno quickly dispels the accusation of “work-aholism,” stating that even of the activities he carries out beyond his professional activities: “I take them all, without exception, very seriously.” These activities included, “Making music, listening to music, reading with all my attention, these activities are part and parcel of my life; To call them hobbies would make a mockery of them.”

Adorno is aware of his own privilege, as what gives pleasure in his recreational time may end up informing his critical and academic activity. He understood he was able to fully divide those activities intended for the production of knowledge and those of his free time.

But in a text from the late 1960s, Adorno opposed the very notion of leisure time and the “leisure industry.” Like any industry, this one is organized around profit. Activities apparently as free as camping trips or going on vacation don’t respond to people’s specific needs, but create expectations of enjoyment. “According to the prevailing work ethic, time free of work should be utilized for the recreation of expended labor power.” Moreover, people don’t seem to be able to make their own decisions about what to do with their time outside of work, because living a repetition of endless routines produces boredom. “Boredom,” according to Adorno, “is the reflection of objective dullness. As such it is in a similar position to political apathy.”

The fact that many citizens of supposedly democratic societies feel that they have little influence or decision-making power in the transformation of their societies seems to be intimately linked to the way we’re trained to use our free time in pre-determined activities. These we consume in the form of products or services, without questioning or exploring the potential for the “free” part of “free time.” For Adorno, the lack of imagination in the use of our leisure time links back to our political imagination.

The reason why people can actually do so little with their free time is that the truncation of their imagination deprives them of the faculty which made the state of freedom pleasurable in the first place. People have been refused freedom, and its value belittled, for such a long time that now people no longer like it. They need the shallow entertainment, by means of which cultural conservatism patronizes and humiliates them, in order to summon up the strength for work, which is required of them under the arrangement of society which cultural conservatism defends. This is one good reason why people have remained chained to their work, and to a system which trains them for work, long after that system has ceased to require their labour.

Adorno’s analysis begins in considering only the differences between leisure and hobbies. The consequences are tremendous when they’re followed through to their logical ends. For the time being, we could begin to think that our use of free time is also a question and a political problem. Ultimately freedom can’t be packaged, re-packaged and marketed like just one more consumer product.

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