In a radio lecture he gave two and a half months before he died in 1969, Theodor Adorno explored the paradox that people do not know what to do with their free time and thus no longer even like it because “[t]hat state of freedom has been refused them and disparaged for so long.” People are generally more familiar with the Kris Kristofferson / Fred Foster version of the same idea from their song “Me and Bobby MeGee”:
Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose
Nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’ but it’s free
Roger Miller recorded “Me and Bobby McGee” on May 16, 1969. Adorno gave his radio lecture, “Freizeit: Zeit der Freiheit? Leben als Konterbande” on Deutschland-funk (Radio Germany), nine days later.
In his radio lecture, Adorno illustrated the problem of free time with “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 about 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*.
The asterisk after the word “hobby*” indicated that it appeared in English in the original transcript. Whether or not it was Adorno’s intention, the appearance of expressions like “hobby*” and “do-it-yourself*” in English has the effect of rusticating them as “Amurican” dialect.
Aside from slyly implicating himself as “one of those matadors of the culture industry”—along with Horkheimer, he had introduced the concept of the culture industry more than twenty years previously—Adorno took the occasion of his astonishment at the question about hobbies* to affirm the distinct seriousness of both his professional and his leisure time activities. It is easy to be amused or repelled by Adorno’s apparent snobbery. But the uncomfortable fact is that it is virtually impossible to write about the inescapable grip of non-labour time mediated by socially necessary labour time without pretending to oneself that one has somehow, against all odds, escaped from it.
The hobby* encapsulates the irony that in a society where labour is treated as a commodity and thus the person who performs it becomes alienated from her own activity, the rigid separation between work and free time requires that leisure also be “organized according to the system of profit.” Free time becomes “the unmediated continuation of labor as its shadow.” The “leisure industry” insures that free time is organized primarily as time for the consumption of commodities—camping gear, tourism, professional sports and entertainment spectacles, and so on.
The hobby*, Adorno maintains, is a pseudo-activity that surreptitiously smuggles into free time, “the contraband of behavioral mores from work.” Typically, the objects people produce during their do-it-yourself* hobbies* are of inferior quality to those produced through the specialized division of labour. What people make in their spare time “has something superfluous about it” because the “lack of imagination that is instilled and inculcated by society renders people helpless in their free time.”
Of course, one can readily point out exceptions where imagination and creativity emerge from unexpected outposts. Those exceptions are notable, however, because they are exceptions. But the publicity given to the exceptions makes it seem as if anyone can do it.
Adorno addressed politics in passing toward the conclusion of his lecture, remarking that do-it-yourself* activity is a type of a more extensive pseudo-activity, which is “misguided spontaneity.” Without specifying the source, he alluded to having addressed pseudo-activity “more than thirty years ago.” A little digging suggests his infamous 1938 essay, “On the fetish character in music and the regression in listening,” in which he lambasted jazz music and listeners as infantile. One trembles to imagine what he would have said about Janis Joplin.
In his radio lecture on “Free Time,” though, he laments that, “pseudo-activity has expanded to an alarming degree, even, and especially, among those people who believe that they are protesting against society.” One month before his radio address, Adorno had been confronted at a public lecture over his calling the police a few weeks earlier to evict students occupying the Institut für Sozialforschung.
Adorno went into more detail on the political implications of pseudo-activity in “Marginalia to theory and practice,” written in 1969 and unpublished during his lifetime. In a letter to Herbert Marcuse, dated May 5, 1969, he mentioned that he was “working on theses that deal with… the relation between theory and practice,” in connection with the student protests. The remarks on pseudo-activity in the theory and practice essay can thus be read as a continuation and expansion on the brief mention of pseudo-activity in his radio lecture.
Adorno’s “Marginalia” essay is almost entirely concerned with criticism of the German student movement “actionism” that confronted him in 1969. There is a whiff of straw man in Adorno’s caricature of the student movement. He enlists a canon-load of eminent names—Kant, Hegel, Fichte, Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Weber, Plato, Aristotle, etc. etc.—to refute the anti-theoretical posture of the student movement while relying on a single anecdote about a graffiti incident to represent the entirety of student movement thought about the relationship between theory and praxis:
When a student’s room was smashed because he preferred to work rather than join in actions, on the wall was scrawled: “Whoever occupies himself with theory, without acting practically, is a traitor to socialism.”
What Adorno elides in his characterization of the German student movement is that there were conflicts within the student movements. Some of its participants were his own students and followers. One of them, Detlev Claussen, shared an apartment with the student whose room was vandalized:
This action was conducted by one of the most theory-hostile groups within the student movement. In fact, I also resided in said apartment, and that was not a coincidence! It was the so-called “leather jacket faction” of the SDS that came into our apartment and ravaged my best friends’ room.
Claussen and his associates agreed with Adorno’s criticism of actionism. Adorno’s essay does not acknowledge such pluralism and accord with his own views.
Thesis 8 in “Marginalia” addresses pseudo-activity specifically. Adorno defines it as, “praxis that takes itself more seriously and insulates itself more diligently from theory and knowledge the more it loses contact with its object and a sense of proportion.” Pseudo-activity is a product of the same “technical forces of production” that also renders it illusory. The ultimate irony is that such pseudo-activity conforms to the “objective social conditions” that it ostensibly protests against.
In an earlier essay, “Resignation,” Adorno described pseudo-activity as an “attempt to rescue enclaves of immediacy in the midst of a thoroughly mediated and rigidified society.” That essay connects up with the “Free Time” lecture in that it identifies “do-it-yourself“* as the “disastrous model of pseudo-activity.” Such activity is nonsensical in that it seeks to “do what has long been done better by the means of industrial production only in order to inspire in the unfree individuals, paralyzed in their spontaneity, the assurance that everything depends on them.” The “do-it-yourself approach in politics” is even more nonsensical than in home repairs, which Adorno admits may have a “quasi-rational purpose.”
For all his polemic against pseudo-activity, though, Adorno leaves a tiny escape hatch:
The administered world has the tendency to strangle all spontaneity, or at least to channel it into pseudo-activities. At least this does not function as smoothly as the agents of the administered world would hope.
What does this “not functioning smoothly” indicate for the now almost universal hobby* of do-it-yourself* politics, sponsored by the social media industry? Although Adorno’s critique may imply a repudiation of such pseudo-activity, the alternative of “serious” engagement with both professional and free-time activities is, as he admitted, reserved for “someone privileged, with the requisite measure of both fortune and guilt, as one who had the rare opportunity to seek out and arrange his work according to his own intentions.” The rest of us are condemned to alternate between “socially necessary labour time” and ancillary “free” time filled with pseudo-activities.
What is to be done? Hobbies* may be all we have. Can a do-it-yourself* critical theory hobby* shine through the cracks in the administered world where the strangling of spontaneity has not functioned as smoothly as the agents had hoped?