I am constantly struck by the overlap between Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse's various critiques of the culture industry and one-dimensional man and Guy Debord's notion of spectacle. I found this affinity once again in reading The Culture Industry, a collection of Adorno's articles by J.M. Bernstein under the heading of the concept first proposed in Adorno and Horkheimer's Dialectic of Enlightenment. The culture industry referred to a specific transformation of capitalist society as a certain threshold was reached in how much capital had fully subsumed all social formation, all social relations, all of the means of thinking against and beyond capital.
If in 1967-8, the Society of the Spectacle still imagined a two-dimensional quality of capitalist society, this would be gone by the time of Comments on the society of the Spectacle with the notion of the "integrated spectacle", which saw the transformation to a one-dimensional world of the sort that Adorno and Marcuse saw as already actual by the end of World War II.
A large part of The Culture Industry, like One-Dimensional Man, is concerned with the harm done to the capacity for experience and the capacity for critique by the development of what Adorno will end up referring to as "late capitalism".
For the moment, I want to focus on the ending two essays, however, which focus on two important themes in Society of the Spectacle: time and the relationship of theory and practice.
"Free Time" focuses on the way in which the time not spent working has been transformed into an adjunct of labor time, time spent preparing to be working. One of the first things Adorno notes is the difference between 'free time' and 'leisure'. Leisure was a lifestyle; one lived "a life of leisure" which indicated a cultured life. 'Free time', however, is just literally the time left over after work (and it does not matter if that work is waged or in the home), time spent recuperating and preparing to do it all over again.
Adorno expands into the activity which comes to absorb free time and it is most definitely not the cultured time of a life of leisure. I think we can leave aside Adorno's examples of listening to radio and watching TV as well worn paths, and we can move directly to MMORPGs or Massively Multi-player Role Playing Games, like World of Warcraft (WoW.) A huge amount of time in the game is spent doing three things: leveling, trading, and repeating quests. All MMORPGs involve leveling, the way a character becomes more powerful, gets new skills and abilities, and in general improves to be able to take on challenges. If this sounds familiar, then you went through the modern school system just like I did. Think of making the top level (there is always a maximum level) as getting your doctorate.
However, your development does not stop by getting to the maximum level. Once there, your goal is to finish quests that require groups of people to complete. These might grant special pieces of equipment or new ranks or special powers, which of course are available to everyone if they are willing to do the same task over and over against, dozens and dozens of times. Considering that these end-of-game-content quests can take anywhere from 3-10 hours apiece and require going in again and again, you literally can spend hundreds of hours in a handful of these quests.
Since money is important in all of these games in one fashion or another, there is the need to sell and trade all of the things you acquire that you do not want. Technically, this also includes learning "crafting skills" that allow you to make not only things you need, but also a large number of items other people need, in return for money.
Finally, and this is a very important component, the game world never really changes. You might get stronger and more powerful and richer, but every quest and every opponent and every opportunity resets. The only things that don't reset are the battles between players. In other words, you might benefit from competing with other people, but the world itself is always the same.
In other words, WoW and other MMORPGs are capitalism's daily life in fantasy form. Not only do they reproduce its conformity, lack of change, tedious repetition, but it trains the mind to enjoy these. Even more so than the average computer game with a finish (although almost all of them today can be replayed), the MMORPG is truly the Nietzschean 'eternal return of the same', and like Nietzsche's uber-mensch, every hero gladly welcomes that return each time, rather than seeking an end to it.
I particularly like his contempt for the do-it-yourself (DIY) culture. Not only does he hit on its amateurishness, but it idolizes this amateurishness. It is an extension of the hobby, something else Adorno finds appalling, and with good reason.
"Resignation" not only picks up a few of these themes, but connects them to the anti-intellectualism of activism. Resignation is the charge hurled by activism as the "disengaged" intellectual. Adorno turns this charge around and shows how the real disengagement comes from the need to be active even when activity amounts to nothing so much as "feeling good about oneself", "feeling part of what is happening", etc. It is the activity of the activist, but also of the group-builder.
Adorno seems to put a special emphasis on the anarchist, but everything he says just as clearly applies to the Marxisante sect. If the DIY culture Adorno excoriates applies to the anarchists (and to many autonomists too), a recruitment culture applies to the socialist sect. The organization in which thought is prohibited or circumscribed by the party program, and there really is no difference in this case between prohibition and limitation, also expects that most of its members fill their time building the organization through recruiting, selling the paper/magazine/whatever, giving talks expressing the party line, etc. The demand for a really effective praxis and that theory conform to and serve first and foremost as a guide to praxis is a demand to kill critical thought.
This does not really do justice to the article. It did make me think of something, however. I find a profound difference between the one-dimensionality thesis and this critique of militantism. One-dimensionality is a kind of Cassandra call (see John Holloway, Open Marxism, Vol. 1 or 3, I don't remember which), a fatalism, but this is radically different. This is a demand for the autonomy or thought, of reason, relative to any immediate practice. It is a challenge to the voluntarism of individuals who would prefer to do than to think and in so doing, do more to reproduce capital than the theorist ever could.