Adorno on Free Time & Music

By Kevin Spencer

The idea of “free time” is a recent development. An older idea was “leisure,” which denotes “the privilege of an unconstrained, comfortable life-style.” By contrast, free time only gets its meaning in not being work time, but it thereby reveals the extent to which it is constrained by work time. Just as free time is a recent development, so it seems that it will continue to become more prominent in the future as more and more technologies develop. However, one suspects that “‘free time’ is tending toward its own opposite, and is becoming a parody of itself. Thus 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.” (188)

Adorno tries to develop the issue by using his own example. When asked about his hobbies, he feels “shocked” because he devotes himself to his non-paid activities as seriously as his paid ones. That is, he abhors the idea of a hobby as an undertaking done merely in order to kill time. (He also notes that, as a philosopher, he is fortunate enough to have a job that allows for a high degree of integration between his leisure activities and his paid activities).[i]

Another way of putting it is this: if in capitalist society labor is reified, then the idea of a hobby is a paradox because it takes the unmediated opposite of labor (the human condition) and reifies it. That is, “On the one hand one should pay attention at work and not be distracted or lark about; wage labour is predicated on this assumption and its laws have been internalized. On the other hand free time must not resemble work in any way whatsoever, in order, presumably, that one can work all the more effectively afterwards. Hence the inanity of many leisure activities” (189-90)

The question, “What are your hobbies” has come to seem entirely normal, along with the assumption that one’s hobbies are provided for by the Leisure Industry. As Adorno says, “Organized freedom is compulsory.” He uses camping as an example. Previously, camping was a simpler affair in which people felt the need to “get out” of their normal conditions. However, that primitive or innocent impulse has been functionalized and re-intergrated into a logic of organization and profit: “Hence the ease with which the free time is integrated; people are unaware of how utterly unfree they are, even where they feel most at liberty, because the rule of such unfreedom has been abstracted from them” (191).

A key aspect of modern free time is boredom. For example, a common form of leisure is sun-tanning (Adorno spent his later career mainly in California), but Adorno claims this act of browning the skin can actually be quite unpleasant, and at best it is extremely tedious. Why do people do this? Partly it’s the fetisization of the self, but it also points to a deeper element of the culture of free time: bordeom. “Boredom is a function of life which is lived under the compulsion to work, and under the strict division of labour” (192).That is, Adorno claims boredom is not some primative or innate emotion (affect, disposition, etc) in humans—instead, it is the result of historically contingent organizations of society. Another example of this boredom is the disappointment many feel when they travel. They expect some small miracle, but what they often find is the same thing they  had back home: “The mir- acles which people expect from their holidays or from other special treats in their free time, are subject to endless spiteful ridicule, since even here they never get beyond the threshold of the eversame: distant places are no longer – as they still were for Baudelaire’s ennui – different places” (191).

Boredom, he continues, is not inevitable: “Whenever behaviour in spare time is truly autonomous, determined by free people for themselves, boredom rarely figures; it need not figure in activities which cater merely for the desire for pleasure, any more than it does in those free time activities which are reasonable and meaningful in themselves” (192). Rather, boredom is merely the inner, subjective equivalent of outer, objective sameness: “Boredom is the reflection of objective dullness.” In this way, boredom is closely allied with political apathy.[ii]

Apathy is not so much the result of people not caring about the big decisions in society; rather, it’s the result of realizing that one cannot substantially influence those decisions. This impotence is, Adorno claims, present in all forms of government. Similarly, boredom is the result of the atrophy of the imagination. In order to fit into society, people have been taught to curb their imaginations, and questions about free time indicate this lack of imagination—people have lost the ability to develop their own interests in their free time, and in many cases have lost the ability to enjoy free time. Thus, “they need the shallow entertainment, by means of which cultural conservatism patronizes and humiliates them, in order to summon up the strength for work” (193).

“Under prevailing conditions it would be erroneous and foolish to expect or to demand that people should be genuinely productive in their free time; for productivity – the ability to bring forth something that was not already there – is the very thing which has been eradicated from them. At best what they then produce in free time is scarcely better than the ominous hobby – the imitation of poems or pictures which, given the almost irrevocable division of labour, others could do better than these amateurs (Freizeitler). What they create has something superfluous about it. This superfluousness makes known the inferior quality of the product, which in turn vitiates any pleasure taken in its production.”

On Music and Culture

“On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening” (1934)

As long as there as been (Western) musical criticism, music has been caught between two extremes: the Dionysian and the Apollonian. The Dionysian aspect is characterized by violence, corporeality, ecstasy, and anarchy. The Apollonian is defined by its calmness, rational control, and the reinscribing of emotions within the acceptable bounds of society: “music represents at once the immediate manifestation of impulse and the locus of its taming.”[iii]

Modern music, however, is characterized by neither Bacchanalian excess nor by Apollonian taste. Regarding the latter point, Adorno claims that “one cannot avoid the suspicion that liking and disliking are inappropriate to the situation [. . . .] The familiarity of the piece is a surrogate for the quality ascribed to it. To like it is almost the same thing as to recognize it.” That is, everything in modern popular music is so identical that one’s value judgments about music are based on “biographical details or on the situation n which things are heard.”

[Commentary: This essay was originally published in 1934, 10 years before the The Dialectic of Enlightenment. Keep in mind that this is the beginning of the radio era as well as the beginning of the “talkies” in the movie industry. Moreover, the popular music of the day in America was that of “Tin Pan Alley,” which is more rigidly formulaic than a lot of music that came after it. However, this music also established some standard features of pop music: it emphasized short pieces (around 4 minutes) that relied on a verse-chorus-verse structure, and the lyrics revolved around a set of common themes such as lost love, future hopes, and silly songs (think “Yes! We have no bananas!”).]

Adorno expresses doubt that musical entertainment actually entertains anyway. “Rather, it seems to complement the reduction of people to silence, the dying out of speech as expression, the inability to communicate at all. It inhabits the pockets of silence that develop between people moulded by anxiety, work and undemanding docility.” Finally, music becomes all pervasive until “[i]t is perceived purely as background.”

In book III of The Republic, Socrates argues for banning various arts that don’t accord with the ideal state. In terms of music, that means banishing certain musical modes that are not conducive to heroic behavior, such as modes commonly found in drinking songs and sad songs. The only music to be allowed is that which will encourage men to fight or die bravely. In other words, those “soft” modes encourage individual reflection and separation from the collective, whereas the battle songs goal is to serve as musical propaganda, inclining men to their stately duty. This tension between conformity-inducing and conformity-breaking music runs throughout the history of music, even inspiring some works which successfully combine high and low themes. “The Magic Flute, in which the utopia of the Enlightenment and the pleasure of a light comic song precisely coincide, is a moment by itself. After The Magic Flute it was never again possible to force serious and light music together.”[iv]

Nowadays, the tension between the conformity-challenging musical impulses and the conformity-inducing impulses has disappeared. More precisely, the former has been absorbed by the latter: “Impulse, subjectivity and profanation, the old adversaries of materialistic alienation, now succumb to it. In capitalist times, the traditional anti-mythological ferments of music conspire against freedom.” He is not referring just to popular music here, but to the entire configuration of music (for example, the distinction of low and high). Thus, every music that displays some individualism that might have been incendiary previously has now become incorporated by the whole of the musical scene. For example, minimalism was once a force of opposition to aesthetics, but now it works in the service of aesthetics. “If asceticism once struck down the claims of the aesthetic in a reactionary way, it has today become the sign of an advanced art.” Moreover, listening for genuine artistic pleasure is no longer possible. That is, if one tries to escape the dull formulations of popular music and listen to modern music with true pleasure, the best one can find is a resentful pleasure in not listening to popular music rather than a positive pleasure in the music itself : “Art records negatively just that possibility of happiness which the only partially positive anticipation of happiness ruinously confronts today.”[v]

This situation is not just for the high-minded few who try to avoid popular music. Rather, it has become a condition of listening genuinely: “The new phase of the musical consciousness of the masses is defined by displeasure in pleasure. The words ‘enjoyment of art’ sound funny.”[vi] Adorno is referring to the everyday person who feels some compulsion to attend to a “higher” form of music, even if he or she may be most familiar with popular music: “The change of function affects all music, not only light music [. . . .] The diverse spheres of music must be thought of together.” The best example of this collapsing of polarities is radio, which on the one hand serves as the voice of the totalitarian government and the guardian of culture, and on the other hand provides mere entertainment (again, keep in mind that the essay is written in Germany in the 1930s).

Again, the apparent diversity of contemporary music must be recognized as a whole, and what unifies them is the way in which the two sphere have been inscribed in the logic of consumption, profit, and the sense of identity that the consumer gets from each:

If the two spheres of music are stirred up in the unity of their contradiction, the demarcation line between them varies [. . . .] The differences in the reception of official ‘classical’ music and light music no longer have any real significance. They are only still manipulated for reasons of marketability. The hit song enthusiast must be reassured that his idols are not too elevated for him, just as the visitor to the philharmonic concerts is confirmed in his status.[vii]

Finally, we come here to the idea of fetish.

[Commentary: Adorno is obliquely referring to Marx’s notion of the commodity fetish. Human labor is transformed into material things, but after these things have been made, the traces of human labor become erased by the monetary value of the thing. Thus, when we buy a lamp at E-Mart, we consider the lamp’s value in terms of its cost only. What is erased or obscured by this monetary cost is the non-material value of the human labor required to make it. This focusing on the lamp’s value as somehow intrinsic to the lamp is commodity fetishism, and along with it is the alienation of human beings who learn to “unsee” eachother in the products withing society.]

In music, the fetish can be seen in many places. The first mentioned is  the notion of “stars,” but “[f]amous people are not the only stars. Works begin to take on the same role. A pantheon of bestsellers builds up [. . . .] The accepted classics themselves undergo a selection that has nothing to do with quality.” Similarly, even parts of songs are extracted from their score and elevated to a mythical level (think of the various samples of Beethoven or Mozart that can be heard in commercials). Another key aspect of musical fetishism is the concern with a singers voice. “In earlier epochs, technical virtuosity [. . .] was demanded of singing stars, the castrati and prima donnas. Today, the material as such, destitute of any function is celebrated [. . . .] To legitimate the fame of its owner, a voice need only be especially voluminous or especially high.” The problem of fetishism gets even more pronounced with the cult of the master violin: everybody oohs and ahs over the sound of a Stradivarius, but very few people can actually distinguish the sound from that of a good modern violin.[viii]

Pushing the notion further, the fetish character of music is a doubling of Marx’s notion of the fetish. A person who goes to an opera or the performance of some well-known musician has “made it” not by actually liking the concert, “but rather by buying the ticket.” What is happening here? A normal commodity’s value is a combination of its exchange value and its use value. However, a cultural product, such as an opera, has no exchange or use value. It is immediately valuable in itself, or at least that it what the opera-goer believes. Instead, however, this immediate value is in fact anything but the enjoyment of the music; rather, the immediate value becomes its opposite: the ability to pay for immediate value (basically, conspicuous consumption): “If the commodity in general combines exchange value and use value, then the pure use value, whose illusion the cultural goods must preserve in a completely capitalist society, must be replaced by pure exchange value, which precisely in its capacity as exchange value deceptively takes over the function of use value.”

The changing function of art is symptomatic of a larger shift in the configuration of use value and exchange value: “The more inexorably the principle of exchange value destroys use values for human beings, the more deeply does exchange value disguise itself as the object of enjoyment.” In other words, in capitalist society, exchangeability is more valued than that which is exchanged: “The woman who has money with which to buy is intoxicated by the act of buying [. . . .] The auto religion makes all men brothers in the sacramental moment with the words: ‘That is a Rolls Royce.’” Mass culture is thus masochistic because people have learned to forego genuine pleasure and instead take pleasure from taking on a identity that was delivered to them from the range of products available at any rate, but this kind of enjoyment “corresponds to the behavior of the prisoner who loves his cell because he has been left nothing else to love.”

Adorno claims one of the main fetish aspects of modern music is the flawlessness of a recordings. Formerly a musical piece was a fluid thing that changed with every performance, but now a musical piece is a single, perfect performance that has been frozen into recording technologies. That is, the tension between composition and performance that enlivens music has disappeared. “This last fetishism, which seizes on substance itself, smothers it.”

Some quotations from the same article:

On the pop music expert:

“To make oneself a jazz expert or hang over the radio all day, one must have much free time and little freedom.”

On regressive listening (which is all listening nowadays):

“Regressive listening is always read to degenerate into rage. If one knows that he is basically marking time, the rage is directed primarily against everything which could disavow the modernity of being with-it and up-to-date and reveal how little has in fact changed [. . . . Regressive listeners] would like to ridicule and destroy what yesterday they were intoxicated with, as if in retrospect to revenge themselves for the fact that the ecstasy was not actually such.”


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