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On holiday with Adorno

August 4, 2012

I’ve been on holiday. Tuscany (don’t you know!), staying in a small village just outside Lucca, making trips to the beach when the temperature was unbearable inland. That’s why it’s been relatively quiet on Media Studies is Shit.

I took a few books with me on holiday, one of which was a collection of essays by Theodor Adorno, called The Culture Industry.

I was really looking forward to reading one particular essay called ‘Free Time’, which was first published in 1977. In it Adorno writes that free time is merely the ‘continuation of the forms of profit-orientated social life’, illustrated in the ironic expression, ‘leisure industry’.

Among the examples that Adorno offers of the encroaching of ‘profit-orientated social life’ what we like to think of as free time is camping, an activity once dedicated to getting way from it all, sleeping out beneath the stars, free of work and domestic chores. Now camping is catered for by a leisure industry that turns your tent into a home-from-home (when surely the original point of camping was to escape this) and simultaneously transforming our desire for escape and respite into private profit.

As Adorno points out:

The industry alone could not have forced people to purchase its tents and dormobiles, plus huge quantities of extra equipment, if there had not already been some longing in people themselves; but their own need for freedom gets functionalized, extended and reproduced by business; what they want is forced upon them once again. 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.

There is, Adorno argues, ‘something vacuous…about the notion of free time’ and to illustrate further (and confirm his status as a miserablist and killjoy) he makes reference to sunbathing.

An archetypal instance is the behaviour of those who grill themselves brown in the sun merely for the sake of a sun-tan, although dozing in the sun is not at all enjoyable, might very possibly be physically unpleasant, and impoverishes the mind. In the sun-tan, which can be quite fetching, the fetish character of the commodity lays claim to actual people they themselves become fetishes. The idea that a girl is more erotically attractive because of her brown skin is probably only another rationalization. The sun-tan is an end in itself, of more importance then the boy-friend it was perhaps supposed to entice. If employees return from their holidays without having acquired the mandatory skin tone, they can be quite sure their colleagues will ask them the pointed question, ‘haven’t you been on holiday then?’ The fetishism which thrives in free time, is subject to further social controls.

Now, I’m not a sunbather. I have that classic Celtic complexion that goes red and freckly in the sun but I am not averse to lazying under a parasol on the beach all afternoon. I’m also mindful that Adorno spent much of his career in California. Had he spent any time in Belfast, he might have a greater appreciation of the sun.

But I take his point: free time ‘does not merely stand in opposition to labour. In a system where full employment itself has become the ideal, free time is nothing more than a shadowy continuation of labour.’

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 4, 2012 1:22 pm

    i find it interesting now with travel being commonplace, that the suntan is more a sign of trashiness and ignorance,where it once was a thing of high glamour…those were the days when folk would gusset themselves up in great clothes to board a plane,and a lasagne was deemed *continental* or for some, *foreign muck*.

  2. Rab permalink*
    August 4, 2012 1:29 pm

    I blame Robert Kilroy-Silk. A man who single-handedly brought the sun-tan into disrepute.

    I blame Iceland for the declining standards of lasagna.

    Also, now that air travel is commonplace I’ve noticed that flying is an ordeal. Waiting for a bus is a much more pleasant experience than catching a plane. I’m not sure who to blame for this…

  3. August 8, 2012 7:40 am

    I think the Italians would have been suitably curious, impressed even, to see a pasty-faced Northern European man defying the expectations of consumer-fuelled free time by sun-bathing with a copy of Adorno’s most famous essays. But they would have been even more impressed had they spotted him posing on a moped by the fountain in a grand old Tuscan square with said volume. But to discover he was from Belfast? Aye. Capitalism has a lot to answer for.

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